October 31, 2020

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40 Empty Years Of Silence

By Shingirai Vambe

Zimbabwe – A vicious Smith inspired propaganda machine nearly made the freedom fighters to be terrorists in the mind of the general populace and when the new black ruled government ascended to power in April 1980, many observers thought that the new era of media plurality and independence would come into being and a new epoch of freedom of expression would descend upon the Southern African country which had braved the might of the oppressive regime’s military onslaught on the liberation fighters from both ZANLA and ZIPRA.

40 years down the line, one is left to ponder whether it was a missed opportunity or the new rulers realized the power of the media as espoused Lasswell’s Mass Communication theory would make them eternal rulers. They saw that one way of controlling the masses was through a media which looked at the socio-politico burning issues of the day through the biased lenses of the government of the day.

The Herald and The Sunday Mail together with The Chronicle were the flagship titles of Argus Press which went on to sell its majority status to the newly created vehicle, The Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust and through that window, the government began the process of controlling news dissemination through -out the country. Under the Ministry of Information, editors had to toe the line. This is underlined by the ‘’promotion’’ of Geoffrey Nyarota in the late 1980’s after he ran a story where top cabinet ministers were implicated in what became known as the Willowvale Scandal (Willowgate). Nyarota was the editor of The Chronicle and when he was promoted to be a Public Relations Manager for ZIMPAPERS, he decided to resign.

Tommy Sithole was a long serving editor of The Herald while Charles Chikerema, a liberation war stalwart held fort at The Sunday Mail. News came from the lenses of party functionaries and one may argue that if there were other media voices beside the government’s opinion, perhaps the issues of corruption, the Midlands/Matabeleland disturbances and inter-party violence at election time, would have been arrested in time.

Everywhere in the world, the media is a hawk on what the three arms of government would be doing and it is not a crime to expose those shenanigans. Remember the Monica Lewinsky case when Bill Clinton was nearly impeached as a USA president? The Financial Gazette was for a long time, the only private weekly and there were no other alternative voices on a daily basis. People were starved of news and they had to rely on hear-say about some of the government excesses.

As for radio and television, the government kept a clear monopoly of the airwaves; for a time, in the eighties, a shadowy Radio Chokwadi raised people’s hopes of another source of news but it petered out and people were bombarded with propaganda from the four radio stations as well as ZTV which up to now remains the only television station in the land.

Freedom of speech is enshrined in our current constitution. During the colonial era, no white radio station had any kind words about the nationalists and fast forward to today. The only time opposition parties are mentioned is when they have ‘’messed’’ up or they are being denigrated. ZTV refuses to allow alternative narratives on its station and successive ministers of Information have promised to liberalize the airwaves but events on the ground do not support their lip service.

Apart from making jobs available to hundreds of media graduates and thousands in the arts industry, diverse media is good to enhance our credentials as a democratic society.

The 40 years that the country will be celebrating is of empty promises and silencing of the media while killing the passion of many who were promised on paper with the support of the constitution but far away from reality.

A new low in the government was the promulgation of AIPPA under the mercurial Prof Jonathan Moyo which ostensibly made information accessible but in real terms was to muzzle the press. On the back of the popularity of The Daily News under the stewardship of Geoffrey Nyarota, the government made some sweeping changes to the registration of a media house. Ironically, the privately owned newspaper had its printing presses burnt and the matter is now a cold case in police files.

The Daily News went into hibernation for many years until it came back in 2012 but by this time it had to compete for market share with NewsDay and The Herald. Moreover, it was no longer as appealing as it used to be; when it was first published, opposition politics ruled the roost and its clients were mainly the urban elites and those who fell under the workers who formed the backbone of the newly formed MDC (Movement for Democratic Change).

It is a global village and information can now be obtained from any source. With the sacking of staff at ZBC by the incoming minister Prof Moyo in 2002, those who were sidelined went abroad and in no time pirate radios sprouted such as Shortwave Radio Africa and the ever popular Studio 7 under the Voice of America waveband. Alternative reportage of news was then available to many Zimbabwe.

Many titles came onto the streets as people’s appetite for news grew and the coming in of Internet was a boon to those in the upper echelons of life on the socio-economic ladder but soon the ordinary people cottoned on to the idea of information sharing when the mobile app, WhatsApp was introduced some years back.

Just a day before people celebrate 40 years of independence the Media Institute For Southern Africa will be hearing the urgent High Court application that was made, seeking the Law enforcement agents to stop harassment of media practitioners. Well how long has this been happening, for the past 39 years Zimbabwe under the leadership of Robert Mugabe, many journalists equipment was confiscated, for the why?

The road to freedom is still very far, similar with the old days during the liberation struggle when there was on state media which would speak of things far away from reality. Thank God of the “new dispensation”, the coming in of Monica Mutsvangwa as the minister of Information and Broadcasting Services, with vast experiences having lived in the diaspora many thought that the light at the end of the tunnel is finally there, but alas the struggle continues.

Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) programmes manager Nigel Nyamutumbu told Post On Sunday that Zimbabwe’s 40 years of independence has been a tumultuous journey characterized by misstates, false hope and little development. While we celebrate all the liberation struggle stalwarts for fighting against a racist regime it is however of concern that the oppressive that sustained the pre-colonial regime remains intact. From a media industry perspective, it is deplorable those forty years after independence the country still has one television station.

This is despite the fact that the country was among the first African countries to have television services and most countries have since overtaken Zimbabwe in spoiling their citizens with broadcast choices. Zimbabwe is still using analogue form of broadcasting in this digital age. There has been an entry of new radio players, all of whom are linked to the state and the ruling party and it is rather unfortunate that we are one of the few countries without community broadcasting. While the print media is relatively open, it is faced with sustainability challenges with declining revenue bases across the globe.

“The cost of accessing the internet is prohibitive and we are yet to expand access across the divide. Surely Zimbabwe can do better for a country that is forty years old” he added.

In the early years of independence, the ministry of Information embarked on media for development programmes where bioscopes were shown all over the country but the thrust was on encouraging people to be their own masters. Many years later, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services has rolled out a plan to empower artistes through the ZIMDIGITAL platform and to date there is nothing to celebrate as the available equipment is turning to be obsolete in the near future of the 5th generation.

The environment continue to get tense freelance journalists are failing to fend for their children or to live a normal life due to a shrinking economy, instead of getting full government support they have become enemies of the state, for writing factual and corrupt stories. Only few months ago Samantha Kureya aka “Gonyeti” was abducted clothes removed, forced to drink sewage because of her skit on Bus top TV, in the “New Dispensation Era”.

Aljezeera camera person, James Jemwa, years back was arrested, incarcerated, and cameras we taken, few days ago, he was arrested, ordered to delete his files, little did they know files can be recovered, Simbarashe Sithole, Freelance Jairos Saunyama, Marry Taruvinga a total of 11 journalists who have been inhumanly treated by state security agents inline of duty during these 21 days of Lock down and tomorrow will be celebrating 40 years of independence?

Media workers cannot continue to be harassed while they are doing their work; Andrew Meldrum of the Associated Press had to be deported in 2003 by Mugabe government only to return 23 years later after his ouster, even after his return Andy was told that his work will be monitored.

“Zimbabwe’s challenges and problems are more pressing than ever, which makes it even more satisfying to be reporting on the people struggling to get by and insisting on better living conditions” says Andy.

Every year students are graduating of media studies, the print industry is shrinking way more than before with the coming in of internet online news has taken the slot reducing the workforce and you can even work in the comfort of your home. With that in mind, the traditional way of recording news, video and photography still stand with the low uptake because of government monopoly of having one channel after 40 years.

During the period of political and economic wars after independence, Zimbabwe saw the coming in of Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), Zimbabwe Union for Journalists (ZUJ), MISA, Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (ZINEF) and the Voluntary Media Council Of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) standing up to support, legal representation and mentoring of journalists in Zimbabwe.

As we go for the next forty years, it is crystal clear that the media landscape will continue to evolve. People have their blogs and Facebook accounts where a large majority of readers can quench their thirst. Will the government liberalize the airwaves as it has consistently promised?

Let’s wait and see. In the meantime, the nation hopes media workers will not be treated as the enemies of the state when they report factually. Polarization of the media between state media and the private media must not derail efforts to report factually without fear, with SI 83 of 2020 in place yes there is need to guard against fake news but many are filled with fear.

“the issue of repressive legislation, unlawful arrests, detentions and harassment of journalists. The media is the lifeblood of democratic societies and it is completely unacceptable that in this day and age we still have a regime that can resort to violence against it’s own citizens and brazenly attack media practitioners. Surely we can do better for a country that is forty years old” Nyamutumbu said.