Media reporting during elections is a crucial aspect of democracy, as it informs and educates the public about the candidates, parties, policies and processes involved in choosing their representatives.
However, media reporting during elections in Zimbabwe has faced various challenges over the years, such as political interference, legal restrictions, ethical dilemmas and safety risks. These challenges have undermined the media’s role as a watchdog and a platform for diverse voices and opinions.
The Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) is committed to ensuring that the media fulfils its constitutional duty in the forthcoming elections, according to Professor Ruby Magosvongwe, the Chairperson of the ZMC.
As the regulator of the media industry in Zimbabwe, the commission’s responsibilities include upholding, promoting, and developing freedom of the media, enforcing ethical practices, promoting fair competition, and ensuring media diversity.
Addressing journalists in Harare, ZMC Chairperson Professor Ruby Magosvongwe emphasized the importance of professional and responsible media that promotes the free flow of information and enables citizens to make informed decisions.
“The media, as the fourth state, plays a crucial role in facilitating communication between contestants and voters. By providing a platform for public debate, scrutinizing and informing the public about candidates’ policies and political parties, the media empowers voters to make informed decisions when they cast their votes,” said Professor Magosvongwe.
In line with its legal obligations, the ZMC has already taken steps to equip media professionals for their role in the upcoming elections.
“In line with these legal requirements, ZMC has already begun processes to capacitate the Media players to play their role. The Commission has already launched an Elections Reporting and Peace Journalism Manual. Among other issues, the manual deals with the following: peace reporting, violence and conflict resolution, Safety of journalists, Elections and women, elections and youths
“The Commission is also interested in enhancing the security of journalists during the elections period, to that end, the Commission will be engaging different stakeholders to have an appreciation of the work that journalists do. We, therefore, call upon stakeholders to respect the profession and allow journalists to work without undue hindrances.
“Similarly, we call upon our media players to conduct themselves professionally. This is not the time for agenda-driven journalism, fake news, misinformation, disinformation and other examples of poor journalism have no place in a functional democracy. Hate speech is abhorrent and cannot be acceptable. To enhance the safety of journalists during this period, the Commission has procured Press Jackets for all practitioners who will be covering the elections. The jackets will enhance the visibility of journalists and that they will easily be identifiable,” she said.
The commission recently produced an Elections Reporting and Peace Journalism Manual, addressing topics such as peace reporting, violence and conflict resolution, the safety of journalists, as well as the involvement of women and youths in elections.
Political interference and legal restrictions
One of the major challenges facing media reporting during elections in Zimbabwe is political interference and legal restrictions that limit media freedom and diversity.
According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe, the media landscape in Zimbabwe is dominated by state-owned or state-aligned media outlets, which tend to favour the ruling party and marginalize the opposition and alternative voices.
The state media also enjoys more access to public resources and information than private and independent media.
As a critical pillar of any democratic society, free and independent media plays a crucial role in ensuring fair and balanced coverage, providing voters with the information they need to make informed decisions. However, recent events have shed light on the growing concerns regarding media gagging and the unbalanced nature of state-controlled outlets, raising questions about the true extent of media freedom in the country.
The Gagged Media:
One of the primary issues surrounding media reporting during elections in Zimbabwe is the stifling of independent voices. The government has been accused of imposing restrictive laws and regulations, limiting journalists’ ability to report objectively and freely.
The Maintenance of Peace and Order Act, which is a law that was enacted in Zimbabwe in 2019 to replace the previous Public Order and Security Act (POSA, is meant to regulate public gatherings, demonstrations, meetings, and other activities that may affect peace and order in the country.
However, some critics have argued that MOPA is a repressive law that restricts freedom of assembly, expression, and association, and gives excessive powers to the police and the military.
MOPA may affect the media’s reportage during elections in Zimbabwe in several ways. For example:
MOPA may limit the media’s access to information and sources from opposition parties, civil society groups, or other actors who may organize or participate in public gatherings that are deemed unlawful or disruptive by the authorities.
MOPA may expose journalists to harassment, intimidation, arrest, or violence by the security forces if they are found covering or attending such gatherings without official permission or accreditation.
MOPA may create a climate of fear and self-censorship among the media, especially those that are critical of the government or supportive of alternative views, as they may face legal consequences or reprisals for their reporting.
These are some possible ways that MOPA may affect the media’s reportage during elections in Zimbabwe. However, this is not an exhaustive list and there may be other factors or scenarios that could influence the media’s role and performance in covering the electoral process.
State Media Bias:
Another glaring issue is the lack of balance within state-controlled media outlets. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and other government-affiliated media entities have frequently been accused of favoring the ruling party, offering disproportionate coverage and limited access to opposition parties and independent candidates. Such biased reporting undermines the democratic process, as citizens are denied diverse viewpoints and alternative policy perspectives.
Ethical dilemmas and professionalism
Another challenge facing media reporting during elections in Zimbabwe is ethical dilemmas and professionalism. Media practitioners and outlets have faced perennial questions over their commitment to reporting and presenting news and information in a fair, accurate and balanced manner, particularly during elections. Some of the ethical issues that arise from media reporting during elections include bias, sensationalism, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, plagiarism and corruption.
According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a prominent civil society organization, some of the factors that contribute to unethical conduct by media practitioners and outlets include lack of training, skills and resources; political affiliation or influence; commercial interests or pressures; personal opinions or prejudices; lack of editorial independence or accountability; lack of self-regulation or peer review; lack of public trust or feedback.
The Position Paper by ZESN:
In its position paper on election, ZESN expressed deep concerns about the state of media reporting during elections in Zimbabwe.
ZESN highlights the need for a level playing field and urges the government to ensure media freedom, impartiality, and inclusivity.
The paper further states that media freedom should be protected and promoted, allowing journalists to operate without fear of intimidation or censorship.
Furthermore, the ZESN position paper emphasizes the need for a fair and balanced media landscape during elections. It calls for the creation of an independent media regulatory body that ensures equitable coverage of all political actors. By establishing clear guidelines for media outlets and enforcing penalties for biased reporting, the ZESN aims to counter the unbalanced narrative perpetuated by state-controlled media.
In conclusion, media reporting during elections in Zimbabwe is marred by concerns over media gagging and the unbalanced nature of state-controlled outlets.
The position paper by ZESN serves as a reminder that media freedom, impartiality, and inclusivity are fundamental principles that need to be upheld.
To safeguard the democratic integrity of Zimbabwe, the government must take immediate action to create an environment conducive to robust journalism. By enacting legislative reforms, dismantling oppressive laws, and fostering an independent media regulatory body, Zimbabwe can pave the way for fair and balanced media reporting during elections, ensuring that the voice of every citizen is heard and respected.