20 April 2011

Zimbabwe: New Papers Yes, But Are These New Voices?


For the first time since Independence in 1980 Zimbabweans wake up to five daily papers on the newsstands.

All the papers have large banners with nearly the same news and one is left wondering if there is any change brought by newly registered players to the industry. Does the media channels plurality translate into multiplicity of voices and issues covered or is it still the same old voices that now have more mouthpieces?

The five daily papers are the Herald, the Chronicle, NewsDay, the Daily News and the Mail. These are in addition to two tabloids, H-Metro and B-Metro.

Media diversity and plurality is a creation of the hard-fought negotiations between the three main political parties that culminated in the 2008 Global Political Agreement. The Sadc-facilitated pact was signed to end a decade-long political bickering. Among other issues, the signatories agreed to overhaul the Zimbabwe media terrain to reflect the diversified opinions in the country.

Zanu PF and the government dominated the print and electronic media for the greater part of the last decade. They determined what news was and what the people should hear. This unfair advantage was buttressed by ownership and control of Zimbabwe's largest media house -- publicly listed Zimpapers and ZBC's radio and television channels.

The other voices could be heard only once a week in privately owned weekly papers such as the Financial Gazette, the Sunday Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent. For the electronic media citizens had to install free to air digital television decoders or tune in to independent Zimbabwean radio stations hosted abroad like Studio 7, Short Wave Radio Africa and VOP.

The Daily News, an Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe publication, in 1999 was the first privately owned daily paper in the country. It created a seismic shift in the media balance of power. Opposition political parties had a window to criticise and contest Zanu PF on a daily basis.

This created a dichotomous media in the country -- pro-government and opposition media. Only two voices dominated the media landscape, Zanu PF and MDC.

To counter the new dispensation, the then Information and Publicity minister Jonathan Moyo steered through the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) to put the media on a tight leash.

The Daily News' days were numbered. Within three short years it breathed its last, banned by the government for non-compliance with Aippa registration requirements.

The brief life of media plurality was gone only to resurrect seven years later. New participants have arisen like a phoenix, mushrooming all over the place but the narrative and the voices continue to be dichotomous. Zanu PF and MDC continue to be the main news.

Media analyst and Media Centre director Earnest Mudzengi argues that the proliferation of new papers has neither changed the political narrative nor created space for other marginalised groups to be heard.

"These papers have largely remained the same," Mudzengi said, "We hear the same old voices, MDC and Zanu PF. We do not have the voice of the ordinary people or any new analysts except the same old voices."

Politics have remained the main lead story across the papers. MDC and Zanu PF continue to hog the limelight. Other political parties like Zapu, Mavambo, Zanu Ndonga, trade unions and non-governmental organisations are rarely in the news.

Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe executive secretary Takura Zhangazha, on the contrary, argues that the emergence of new papers was good for freedom of speech and information.

"New players have broken the media monopoly," Zhangazha said. "The papers have given options to the people of Zimbabwe to consider. There is now a semblance of diversity but it's too early to tell."

However, Zhangazha admitted that the political narrative has not changed much neither has other issues covered in the press.

"I think the papers are competing in a tight market," Zhangazha said, "They are responding to market needs which dictate that politics sell hence the headlines we see every day."

The media euphoria is set to end at sometime. Papers will have to compete for the market in a depressed economy where the majority of employed persons earn far below the $500 poverty datum line. It remains to be seen if the media environment will not replicate the post-Kamuzu Banda Malawian experience.

From independence in 1964 to 1992, Malawi had only two papers, the Daily Times and the weekly Malawi News published by the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and the Malawi News Agency. Post-Banda in 1994 more than 20 papers were operating in Malawi but most quickly collapsed within two years.

Only four papers The Malawi News and the Daily Times (both owned by the late President Banda's business empire), and the Nation and Weekend Nation (owned by Aleke Banda, the country's agriculture minister and first vice president of the ruling UDF) have remained the strongest players with a reasonable impact on the market. The Mirror (owned by Brown Mpinganjira, the country's foreign minister and prominent personality in Muluzi's UDF) has survived the turbulent times in the newspaper publishing industry.

Publishers cited poor financing, high newsprint costs, poor skills in managing a newspaper business and lack of trained newsroom staff as major reasons for going under. Among the short-lived papers are.

The New Voice, The Watchers, The Malawian Michiru, SunCity Star, Financial Observer, Weekly Mail, News Today, The Herald, New Express, Daily Monitor, and The Democrat, which collapsed in 1996. The Independent and The Star were phased out in 1999 because of lack of support from influential politicians.

Zimbabwe is still to experience the liberalisation of the airwaves. No new broadcasters have been licensed. ZBC still enjoys a monopoly and Zanu PF still has unfettered access to the medium.

However, Mudzengi argues that, "New broadcasters may fall into the same trap that print media fell into. Broadcasting may be different because content from the broadcasters will be determined by the type of licences granted to each new player."

Broadcasting licences may take the form of community stations, public broadcasting and commercial stations. These in a sense will create space for new voices and create plurality in the news. For the time, media plurality and diversity is yet to come to our shores.

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