Zimbabwe: 2021 an Extinction Year for Zim Media?

opinion

The Zimbabwe media faced multiple challenges from many fronts in 2020, but arguably the most potent of those was Covid-19, a global pandemic that is still ravaging the word.

While Zimbabwe was spared the full blow of the pandemic in terms of the numbers of infected people and deaths, as compared to the western world, the pandemic has, however, had a negative impact on media business models, with as many media houses struggling to maintain production. This has led to job losses in the media as well as reduced profit margins.

The long-term threat to the Zimbabwe media sector is, however, not the pandemic but an unsupportive economic and political environment that already had the sector by the tenterhooks for much of the past decade.

That we still have media houses publishing newspapers and a variety of news products on the market is an attribute of the innovation of mostly the independent media actors, many of whom have no direct support -- financial or moral -- from the government.

That the mainstream media is still standing, more so the independent media, is one proof of the resilience of the small independent media in the country and an inspiration to young upstarts who are entering the sector.

Covid-19 as an instrument

There is no doubt that the Zimbabwean government was not only ill-prepared for Covid-19. When it finally landed on our borders, the political elite moved to weaponise and instrumentalise Covid-19 for political ends and with it more trouble for the Zimbabwe media.

Not only was Covid-19 talked of in war like terms as "an enemy" that needed to be destroyed, those who found themselves on the receiving end of the government's anti-Covid-19 policies be they citizens or journalists became enemy collaborators in this war. The year 2020 provided an opportunity for the Zimbabwe government to control information and freedom of expression using a non-political issue -- public health.

The official line was that Journalists who were being harassed were a threat to public health and not necessarily being targeted for their media work. The politicisation of Covid-19 was not only meant to silence society but also platforms of accessing information.

Pre-emptive and undemocratic legal instruments were deployed to silence some of the ruling elites' ardent critics, one of them being Hopewell Chin'ono who is breaking records as the most hounded journalist in Zimbabwe.

To celebrate this, senior government communicators often quote Egypt's infamous four-year jailing of Aljazeera journalist, Mahmoud Hussein, seemingly in admiration and wishing that Zimbabwe's periods of jailing journalists need to be much longer.

Digital media space

The continued and unrelenting arrests of journalists in 2020 and 2021 attest to the determination of the ruling elite to push back, and harder against the use of the online space as platforms for sharing information. The year 2020 saw an increase in the use of online space by the media and journalists more so as a response to the Covid-19 lockdown, which rendered the printed copy a hard sale.

The "positive" outcome of Covid-19 is the speed at which both mainstream and alternative media platforms had to innovate on the use of digital media platforms. The year 2020 accelerated the inevitable as media houses had to find new ways of making money and staying in business.

Digital media platforms are now more easily available in Zimbabwe and online media upstarts have sprung up across the country. The nexus between digital media and a growing access to the internet in Zimbabwe has unfortunately drawn the ire of the political elite that, for the first time, sees their control of Zimbabwe's narrative slipping off their fingers.

It is for this reason that journalists reporting on corruption were met with such antagonism and attacks, resulting in Chin'ono spending several days in prison, had his home broken into, equipment seized among other tribulations.

The forgotten

Covid-19 exposed the growing access to information gap in Zimbabwe as marginalised communities that include rural areas and women faced more isolation from the information loop. A March 2020 study by Media Monitors showed that only about 1% of information on Covid-19 came from rural areas. This figure mirrors what has long been a concern on access to information, more so information valuable to decision making within marginalised groups.

Media presence in rural areas is mostly state-owned radio, which unfortunately was captured by officialdom, with the dominant media voices in 2020 being government officials speaking down on people. The lack of diversity in media voices equally means that the stories that impact on Zimbabwe are told from the point of view of a few powerful elites at the exclusion of women.

Reluctant reformers

One of the sore points for the ruling elite in 2020 was why they were not being praised for the media reforms instituted in 2020. These include the passage of the Freedom of Information law, licensing new TV and community radio stations.

These were key developments in Zimbabwe but hardly transformational as the politics remained the same. The Zimbabwe government is not necessarily opening up because it is democratic but because it hopes to spruce its image.

In any case the new TV stations, all yet to operate by 2021, offer little if any hope in content diversity as they are not only linked to the ruling elite, but likely to reinforce the same elite narrative on Zimbabwe. The media reforms appear largely aimed at pleasing the international community rather than benefitting the people of Zimbabwe.

The future borrowed from the past.

The year 2020 provided the ruling elite with an opportunity to push media repression and disinformation without having to worry about politics but seemingly in the name of health. And a worrying trend is the gravitation towards increased authoritarianism as the mask of reform of the Zanu PF government continues to peel off.

The proposed cyber law, the growing and intrusive power of the securocrats, will pose a threat to the media. The wish of senior government communicators and officials is that journalists spend more time in jail. This is stated on their Twitter accounts and Zanu PF statements. One must ask what else they will do, more so if keeping someone in jail attracts unnecessary attention and if the journalists remain uncowered.

Rashweat Mukundu journalist.

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