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ZBC unlikely to reform ahead of 2018 elections

15 May 2017 at 16:07hrs | Views
As the 2018 watershed elections loom in the country, public broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) which enjoys a monopoly on the local airwaves has come under the spotlight as opposition political parties fight for the space currently dominated by the ruling Zanu-PF.

Media practitioners, election and political observers interviewed by the Daily News are adamant that the ZBC's television and radio stations - like they did in previous elections - will not cover opposition political parties' campaign activities.

They don't foresee ZBC changing its biased editorial stance in support of the Zanu-PF government.

But could it be possible that ZBC might reform ahead of the 2018 elections?

Misa-Zimbabwe national director Nhlanhla Ngwenya said his answer is that it can only be possible if Zimbabweans take ownership of the broadcaster by demanding its freedom from Zanu-PF.

"But there seems to be fatigue if not acceptance of the abnormal as normal, just like Zimbabweans do as a copying mechanism.

"Demands for the broadcaster to be independent from the political clutches are in line with the country's Constitution and regional protocols on freedom of expression. Even the Sadc guidelines on elections place obligations on the public media to act as such.

"In short, I am saying there is enough legislative backup for Zimbabweans to reclaim ZBC and make it a true public broadcaster."

Ngwenya said Zimbabweans needed to attach a cost to ZBC's continued violation of its public service mandate and break the culture of impunity where public institutions completely disregard their public service mandate knowing fully well their actions will not attract any consequences.

"This therefore means Zimbabweans should ensure relevant oversight bodies and authorities such as human rights, and elections commissions act on ZBC and its handlers' abdication of duty.

"Sadly, the opposition that tends to mourn their exclusion during elections has not and is not doing enough to ensure the situation is addressed. Their lackadaisical approach on this matter reflects their insipid media policy agenda."

Voluntary Media council of Zimbabwe director Loughty Dube said: "The framework to reform ZBC lies with the broad framework to transform all media, the first start will be for reforms to start at re-constituting the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust (ZMMT) and allow the trust to appoint ZBC boards so that they are not directly under a minister who is a political party functionary.

"ZMMT as representing the public should be accountable to Parliament and not an individual politician. Continued political interference with the editorial independence of the State-controlled ZBC, is largely due to the influence of the minister.

"The next process will be to totally transform ZBC from being a State broadcaster into a truly public broadcaster," said Dube.

Election Resource Centre director Tawanda Chimhini said the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) has a role to play in ensuring that the state/public media provides balanced reporting of all contesting political parties simply on the basis of the Constitution which says Zec must conduct free and fair elections.

"In fulfilment of this constitutional obligation, Zec must take all necessary measures to ensure fairness, including compelling the public media to operate professionally.

"Not doing so and proceeding with an election where the public broadcaster conducts itself in a clearly biased and partisan manner would be facilitating a potentially unconstitutional election."

Chimhini said regulatory measures can be used compel the media to report in a balanced, ethical manner and it is within Zec's mandate to draft such regulations and include penalties in the event of non-compliance.

"All media, public and private, must never operate beyond the limitations of ethics and principles. As such, Zimbabwe is now in the pre-election phase of the electoral cycle.

"The conduct of the media must already be under scrutiny by the election management body. Waiting to conduct such scrutiny and to regulate the media when an election date has been announced falls short of what is expected to influence a credible electoral process. Emphasis to regulate the media in elections must include balance, editorial independence, provision of information and accuracy," said Chimhini.

Media practitioner Koliwe Nyoni said demanding reforms at ZBC means a number of things.

"Firstly, we need to secure the editorial independence of the public broadcaster. This is not easily achievable given that the current government seems to have a ‘grip' on State media and this is even more visible now with the infighting within the ruling party.

"It is not a secret that there is political interference that has in the past seen the public broadcaster blacking out on critical coverage such as that of opposition parties during elections. In July, ZBC blacked out on the nationwide stay away and it emerged that the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe had allegedly issued a warning to all broadcasters on its coverage."

Nyoni said there is need for the law to define the editorial independence of ZBC which is guaranteed in terms of Section 61 of the Constitution.

"Secondly, and very critical at this moment, is that following the 2015 KPMG audit report we have not seen much movement on the recommendations on corporate, functional and operational levels at the public broadcaster.

"The audit was clear that restructuring was necessary in view of the migration from analogue to digital television broadcasting in the country. Despite the fact that there has been near silence on recommendations and little improvement on the quality of productions, government wants to award the broadcaster five more television channels.

"Reforming within this context involves increasing the capacity of ZBC by dealing with accountability by an independent board with a public interest, avoiding reporting and programming in regard to religion, political belief, culture and race."

Veteran broadcaster John Masuku said: "Chances of the ZBC radio and television giving more positive coverage to opposition parties are very slim. Nothing indicates that such will happen.

"Political parties should fully utilise alternative platforms like ChannelZim which carry programmes from VOA Studio 7, Radio VOP, Radio Dialogue and CORAH among others.

"They should also continue to demand to be heard on public radio and cite relevant broadcast legislation regarding why ZBC should not be a State controlled broadcaster but a public entity that benefits all tax payers."

Masuku added that the media should also expose private stations that are not impartial as well. "Media advocacy groups like Misa and VMCZ should issue widely circulated alerts about any flouting of best broadcasting practice."

Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch Dewa Mavhinga said: "There are very slim chances for ZBC to reform ahead of 2018 elections because they follow directives from an extremely partisan Zanu-PF government that actively promotes biased coverage which favours them. Reform is likely under a new administration."

Media practitioner Rashweat Mukundu said: "I don't foresee ZBC changing its biased editorial stance in support of the Zanu-PF government. If anything at all we will see a continuation of the denigration, hate messaging of opposition parties reminiscence of the past.

"Zec could work with media to develop a code of conduct that enhances professionalism in coverage of elections and that media should adhere to. Otherwise outside this there is no way that ZBC can be forced to be professional."

Mukundu said past court challenges on ZBC bias have failed, and this calls for a review of laws governing the ZBC to make it a public broadcaster.

"The editorial policies are not the making of staff at ZBC but political directives from Munhumutapa building and the staff either has to comply or be fired. It is the political interference that needs redress."

Media practitioner Faith Ndlovu said elections are the centrepiece of democracy and political party campaign coverage is crucial because of its power to empower the electorate.

"The media therefore, particularly the public media, indeed have a duty to report on elections and contesting parties in a fair, balanced, accurate, transparent and equitable manner as reflected in the media code of conduct and guidelines such as the Sadc Guidelines Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

"While past performance by the ZBC in covering previous elections has been a cause for concern, I hope that the relevant authorities recognise and respect local and regional instruments that Zimbabwe is signatory to on credible and professional media election coverage."

Ndlovu added that it is therefore imperative for political parties alongside relevant media professional bodies and even regional bodies to continue calling for, and putting pressure on the relevant authorities for the non-partisan coverage of electoral processes.

Information for Development Trust national cordinator Tawanda Majoni said there is no chance that ZBC will shift away from its traditional pro-Zanu-PF, anti-opposition stance without being forced.

"As part of the official media, it will always structure its content and approaches to favour the sitting government. That has always been the case, even prior to independence. Attempts have been made by the political opposition and civil society since 2000 to compel the broadcaster to be non-partisan, balanced and objective, but that has been falling flat.

Majoni said the Sadc guidelines on elections prohibit partisanship, and so do global best practices on elections. "Strong advocacy must be built around this and a non-partisan ZBC must be among the key demands for free and fair elections, outside which the opposition must just boycott the polls.

Source - dailynews
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