COLUMN | I don’t know if Zimbabwean journalism needs rescue, but I know it’s in trouble

(Xinhua/Tafara Mugwara)

By Takura Zhangazha

Zimbabwe’s media sector has not been in a good situation for a long while, and I am not just referring to the country’s consistently precarious freedom of expression context.

The challenges the media in Zimbabwe faces are fundamentally about professionalism and sustainability. These are two elements that are symbiotic in keeping it viably afloat. These can also be contradictory, because either can cancel out the other. 

This is to say the sustainability of the media in Zimbabwe can be considered to be more reliant on its own unethical conduct in order to garner more readers, viewers, listeners based on preferential journalism. The latter is journalism that is biased, non-factual and in keeping with what its authors deem to be what a paying public prefers. 

It fits into what I consider the rather awkward adage of ‘news is what sells’, particularly for mainstream print and broadcast media globally, and in Zimbabwe. 

The uniqueness of Zimbabwe’s media situation is as interesting as it is now worrying, in at least five respects, namely; ideological preferences, political bias, the profit motive, caution about crossing government’s media policies and the interface between old and new tech-motivated media platforms.

I will address each of these elements separately.

It is also important to mention from the get-go that Zimbabwean journalists are also caught up in this conundrum as it affects their own welfare and unionism. Even where and when they seek to be as professional and ethical as possible, they are beholden to these aspects that I have mentioned above and will explain below.

Journalism: where do we stand?

Understanding Zimbabwean media’s current situation requires understanding its ideological positioning, before we even talk of assumptions and realities of political bias. 

Our mainstream media is cut from a very similar ideological cloth. It is essentially, in the contemporary, a liberal media ideologically. This is largely by way of the legacy of colonialism and our media training institutions. It is particularly the case in its coverage of issues relating to the national political economy and private capital.

Even where we try and consider its ideological approach in the first ten years of national independence, media remained enamored to a relatively liberal understanding of Zimbabwean realities.

I know that this is a disputable point, but our media and our journalism were generally designed in the framework of colonial legacy journalism. 

Hence, by the time the Nigerian government bought, on our behalf, Argus Publications (now Zimpapers), the tradition of what journalism can be had already been ‘liberally’ set. This was despite our attempts at socialism.

Structurally, Zimbabwe’s media was designed to be pro-capital as a legacy of Rhodesian settler colonial hegemony. This is both in its state-owned or private forms. Hence, even with the then Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI), one of its primary recommendations was that of considering the ‘media as a business’.  

We never got out of that mindset, hence our current mainstream media reflects more the views of political and private capital powers that obtain. The media is not valued as much as a purveyor of freedom of expression in the public interest, than it would be considered for its representation of elitist interests.

“Bias and a lack of media ethics are what is sustaining mainstream media…”

Partisanship for profit

This brings me to the second element of ‘political partisanship’ in our contemporary mainstream media. This partisanship or bias in our media is linked to elements of its sustainability. Taking specific sides is not as ideological or as value driven as it would be in, say, the global north’s media. Here, it is almost as though bias and a lack of media ethics are what leads to a sustainable mainstream media, based on target audiences which include those in power or those in opposition politics and their supporters.

Even more significant are those that create advertising or other revenue for the mainstream media.

Such a situation enables journalism that is unprofessional, as it relates to what is required for the mainstream media outlet to either make money or be accepted in the eyes of its target audience. 

We can argue that this is typical of all media, but in Zimbabwe, its exaggeration is that it is considered the norm and not the exception.

The third element is that of the assumption of the profit motive of the media. It tallies closely with the discussion on the matter of political bias. Media owners are largely responsible for putting pressure on senior level journalists (editors in particular) to function like chief executive officers, at the expense of their journalistic roles. All at the same time thinking that journalism can only be successful if it ratchets up sales via increased eyes and ears.

In this sense, the ‘media as a business’ model falls short of expanding free expression and public interest access to information. This approach commodifies not only journalism but also free expression, though the media owners have limited interest in this as they crunch dwindling profit numbers. 

Media environment

The fourth element is that of how the mainstream media remains wary of our national government’s media laws, and how they curtail free and independent journalism. 

While these laws have been undergoing reforms that have been cautiously welcomed by stakeholders, the government’s approach to media freedom has also led to skepticism, anger and mistrust. It has also had the end effect of creating a very public perception that the private media is always correct when reporting on government transgressions. This is especially because of the continued arrest and harassment of journalists that are either just doing their jobs or perceived as being pro-opposition.

Finally, mainstream media has a dilemma with social media because of the disruption of its long obtaining ‘news cycle’. This is to the extent that no one can really say which leads the other at the moment. From social media influencers through to bloggers/vloggers, the mainstream media in Zimbabwe appears to be playing catch-up most of the times. It is a development that has opened up the journalism profession to that perennial question; “Who or what is a journalist?” 

In essence, however, this question is really about how does the Zimbabwean public value journalism, both in its more traditional or newer formats. I do not think the profession is as valued any more, largely due to the fact of technology enabling almost anyone with mobile telephony and access to social media the capacity to tell their own version of a news event. 

I do not know if Zimbabwean journalism needs rescue. Only practicing journalists and media owners, organisations can respond to this matter. What I do know is that it is in trouble and that, as elsewhere globally, it is losing ground on the public interest value of free expression as a fundamental democratic right.

Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (