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Zimbabwe State Media Accused of Breaking Election Laws

The Zimbabwe state media has been accused of bias in favor of the ruling ZANU-PF party by media monitors observing the run up to national elections on March 29. And as Peta Thornycroft reports, monitors say the Zimbabwe Election Commission, mandated by law to ensure balanced media, is failing to do its job.

The Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe says in a report issued this week that the ruling ZANU-PF party has effectively hijacked the state television and radio broadcaster, ZBC, as the party's own private broadcasters.

Abel Chikomo, advocacy coordinator for the Project says that the national broadcaster behaves as if it is ZANU-PF's own private radio and television station. This he says is in "flagrant" violation of electoral and broadcasting laws.

"For the month of February only, between the 5th February to the 29th February, [Zimbabwe TV] accorded a total of 3 hours 22 mins to the ruling party only," said Chikomo. "This is in addition to the 4 hours the ruling party got [for] the launch of their manifesto, which time was [given to nobody else]."

"ZBC [even suspended] all programming to ensure they ran the ZANU-PF manifesto live, without any interruption. We believe there is no better indication of the bias, and inequality and unfairness of the reporting of elections than what we have seen already," he added.

In addition, the project issued a stern rebuke to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission which it says has failed to fulfill its mandate to ensure that the public broadcaster is balanced and fair, in both content and time, toward all political parties and candidates.

The chairman of the commission, Judge George Chiweshe, told VOA that the commission has set up its own monitoring body and began its work just this week.

"So they started working in earnest this week really and we have not got a report from them, because it is only four days into the week. But what they will be doing is ensuring that the various requirements they are required to do respect of what part of the election activities and so on [that they cover]; these are being adhered to," he said.

There are no independent broadcasters based in Zimbabwe. And, the state controls all the daily print and electronic media within the country. There are a handful of independent weekly publications.

The Project's Chikomo says the state media has also failed to educate the electorate about the practicalities of the election and of voting. In addition he says, the public has not been informed about changes in electoral and media laws which resulted from the South African-mediated talks between the ruling party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

"It's not just about that there is no fair coverage on ZBC," said Chikomo. "We still don't have the daily news, or any alternative daily source of information in this country to date. So there is no political will or commitment on the part of ZANU-PF, the ruling party, or the government to ensure that they implement what they seem to have agreed in South Africa."

Opposition parties have also complained that Mr. Mugabe has been using government-funded inducements to win support from the electorate, including salary hikes for civil servants and the army and agricultural equipment such as tractors for people in rural areas.

Judge Chiweshe told VOA he couldn't comment on whether this is unfair or illegal.

"We are the last people able comment on issues like that because they are of a political nature, in essence," said Chiweshe. "It is difficult for us to comment on what is inducement and what is not inducement, unless of course someone has filed a charge, and it has been sustained in the proper forum. I cannot say anything, my hands are tied. If I say it's wrong, then it means I am taking a position prematurely because the facts have not been put before me.

The Media Monitoring Project and opposition parties say that in the current climate it is not possible to hold elections that are not biased in favor of the ruling ZANU-PF and President Robert Mugabe and that the Zimbabwe Election Commission needs to urgently ensure the public media such as Zimbabwe Television, ZTV, complies with the law.