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Zimbabwe Ruling Party Maintains Grip on Public Media


Zimbabwe's government is allowing opposition candidates access to state broadcasters to campaign for the March 31 parliamentary elections. But some analysts say access to state broadcasters is still weighted in favor of the ruling party.

Zimbabwe's four radio stations and one television channel are all state-owned and controlled and collectively known as Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings. They are known for their pro-ruling Zanu-PF party propaganda and vilification of the opposition.

But a new law strives to balance the political advertising. For the first time in Zimbabwe's history the broadcasters are forced to accept campaign advertisements from opposition parties or candidates. It also requires that the broadcasters allocate equal time for the broadcasting of election material.

All this has been welcomed by analysts.

The spokesperson for the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, Nhlanhla Ngwenya, described the new law as a good development since in previous elections it was up to the broadcaster to decide who would get access and when. But he expressed concern that outside what the law defines as programs relating to an election, the rabid denigration of the opposition continues.

Mr. Ngwenya says many programs including the news have not changed.

"The news is still biased in favor of the ruling party," said Nhlanhla Ngwenya. "Some of the items are not even newsworthy. That is where they are slotting items about ruling party campaign activities, giving them positive publicity in their news bulletins, but then they claim they are not obliged to cover the opposition."

Mr. Ngwenya said President Robert Mugabe's 81st birthday celebration, which was carried on television in its entirety, is an example of Zanu-PF's abuse of the public broadcaster. When Mr. Mugabe launched his party campaign and manifesto last month, the four-hour proceedings were carried live on television. When the opposition Movement for Democratic Change launched its campaign, it got nothing more than a two-minute news item.

The law also set advertising rates which many parties and candidates find too high.

"There are very few opposition adverts and I think it is due to the prohibitive costs," he said. "But Zanu-PF adverts are beginning to flood the airwaves."

The high cost factor was confirmed by Movement for Democratic Change spokesperson Paul Themba Nyathi, as the reason his party cannot match the ruling party's level of advertising.

Mr. Nyathi says while the idea is good, the way it is being executed is a clear sign that it is yet another Zanu-PF ploy to dupe the international community into thinking Zimbabwe is implementing the Southern African Development Community guidelines on elections; to which the government is a signatory.

The regulations do not cover the state-owned print media. As a result, newspapers continue their assault on the opposition and, like radio and television, they carry Zanu-PF advertisements on what the party has dubbed 'the anti-Blair' elections. This is a reference to the ruling party's charge that the Movement for Democratic Change is a front for the British government's plan to re-colonize Zimbabwe.

But Rindai Chipfunda of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network says the newspaper advertisements will not likely have a major impact on voters. She says because newspapers target mostly more sophisticated voters in the urban areas, they will not be as easily swayed by the advertisements' messages.

"In my view radio is far much better; 70 percent of rural-based voters rely on radio for information," said Rindai Chipfunda. "For those in the urban areas who read the newspapers, they are already informed."

Most analysts say that Zanu-PF has won the battle of the airwaves. The world will know whether this will translate into more votes for the party on March 31.

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