Zimbabwe has licensed four new daily newspapers in a major step forward by a unity government that has yet to deliver any real political reforms.
It is widely believed that pressure from South Africa, which is mediating between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change, played a role in the policy shift.
On Monday Zimbabweans will see an independent daily on the streets for the first time in seven years when NewsDay begins publishing.
But the new papers face a new battle to survive in what will be a highly competitive commercial environment.
The Zimbabwe Media Commission on Wednesday licensed NewsDay, owned by Mail & Guardian publisher Trevor Ncube’s Alpha Media Holdings; the Daily News, banned in 2003; The Daily Gazette, owned by Modus Publications; and the Daily Mail, run by a group of youths said to be sponsored by a government youth fund.
With tough restrictions on the local media in Zimbabwe, South African newspapers have picked up some market share there. Recently, the Sunday Times began distributing a Zimbabwe edition. But commission head Godfrey Majonga has warned that foreign newspapers “with typically Zimbabwe content and targeted at the Zimbabwe readership” must also be licensed.
Zanu-PF has stalled on media reforms since the formation of the country’s coalition government. But a government official told the M&G this week that pressure from a team tasked by President Jacob Zuma to achieve full implementation of the unity deal played a part in pushing Mugabe towards greater media freedom.
Pressure is now building for the licensing of independent broadcasters.
NewsDay, which has been running “dummies” in Ncube’s Zimbabwean weeklies, The Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent, already has a fully staffed newsroom and a printing press. The paper told advertisers on Thursday that it would start publishing on Monday.
With restrictions lifted, the question now is whether all five dailies can survive in an economy still struggling towards recovery, and whether they can quickly claw back market share from the state-owned Herald, which has enjoyed a seven-year monopoly.
Before it was banned in 2003 for refusing to register under restrictive media laws, the Daily News had cut The Herald‘s circulation down to 20 000 from more than 100 000.
The Daily News thrived in the heated political environment in the years following its launch and, although the political temperature has cooled under the unity deal, newspapers are likely to see a spike in sales if elections are held in Zimbabwe next year as planned.
But although the economy has stabilised, adspend remains low as businesses are still trying to return to profitability. The bulk of press advertising currently comes from large supermarket chains and telecommunications companies.
Street sales will pose a particularly tough challenge, with newspapers likely to be priced at $1 (R7,60).
In addition, Zimbabwe’s sole newsprint supplier is already unable to supply existing papers adequately.