JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe’s media landscape has grown in the past year to include several independent media groups that are joining the powerful state broadcaster in reporting on next week’s election. But rights groups say they are still seeing “low-level repression” of journalists.
Rights groups and media watchers agree that Zimbabweans will have more media choices during this election than in previous years.
But more, says the Committee to Protect Journalists, does not necessarily mean better.
In the past 18 months, the government has licensed two new radio stations, says CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Sue Valentine. But, she said, those voices are largely drowned out by state media, which she said clearly favors President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party. Mr. Mugabe will lead his party's ticket on the July 31 election.
“So there are some chinks in the general armor of silence," she said. "But state media does remain dominant in terms of its reach around the country. ... If the state broadcaster, if it were behaving according to journalistic ethics, if it were behaving more more like a public broadcaster and offering equal time or proportionate time to different parties, I think then it would not be a problem ... But it is because you have such a slanted state media that I think the problem exists.”
Mugabe, who is 89, has led Zimbabwe since its independence in 1980. He is running again, though a recently approved constitution limits him to just two more five-year terms.
The 2008 elections were marred by violence, which rights groups largely attributed to Mugabe’s security forces. Mugabe agreed to form a power-sharing government with the opposition; with this vote, he seeks to free himself from that troubled pact.
Valentine said the group’s concerns are not only about the government: she cited reports of intimidation and attacks by what appear to be opposition supporters.
Human Rights Watch’s Africa Advocacy Director Tiseke Kasambala said while the media landscape does look better than it has in the past, the rights watchdog is still concerned. She echoed concerns the state media reports more on the ruling party than on the opposition, and said her group had also documented the opposition-linked attacks.
She also said that years of intimidation and harassment have led many independent journalists to self-censor.
“While there has been an improvement in media freedoms in the country, this is not to say that concerns to not remain around the ongoing low-level repression and intimidation against journalists, especially with restrictive laws hanging over their heads,” said Kasambala.
Valentine said the need for an unfettered media goes beyond just one election.
“Zimbabwe used to be a thriving economy, an exporter of grain to the region, and this has all disappeared over the last 10 years, tragically," she said. "And a critical media that can be saying, ‘what has happened? Where is this money going? How is our economy being managed? What are the choices that citizens have around them?"
She said, "People do not have jobs, why is this the case?’ Those are the kind of questions that a critical media should be able to ask, and a responsive leader would want to hear, in order to address these things and to govern in the interests of citizens, as opposed to in the interests of the elite.”
Without many of those questions asked or answered elections will proceed on Wednesday.