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Press freedom on trial in Zimbabwe ahead of elections

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By Ignatius Banda/IPS UN Bureau Report

HARARE – From exorbitant registration fees to cover the much-anticipated polls to physical harassment of journalists covering ruling party rallies, media practitioners report an escalation of attempts to muzzle press freedom, creating hostile conditions for election reporting.

Zimbabwe’s national elections have a long history of rekindling and escalating hostility towards the press corps, with journalists from privately owned media houses especially being targeted by political activists and members of the security forces.

In recent months, independent journalists have endured physical attacks from President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front), accused of unfavourable reporting.

While these journalists – some from small start-ups and privately-owned media houses to those working for international news agencies – have been barred from covering ruling party political rallies, their colleagues from state-controlled media outlets have been allowed free access, raising concerns from press freedom advocates about access to information for voters.

The media polarisation has also seen retaliatory responses, with state media being barred from covering opposition Citizens for Coalition for Change (CCC) rallies.

The CCC, Zimbabwe’s main opposition tipped by pollsters to unseat the ruling party, accuses state media of biased and hostile coverage while acting as the ruling party’s propaganda arm.

However, these accusations have been dismissed as unfounded by senior editors at outlets that include the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and The Herald, a government-controlled national daily.

Journalists have also challenged the requirements that they pay what they say are exorbitant accreditation fees to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) when the journalists are already accredited by the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC).

“It’s understandable to accredit foreign journalists to cover the elections, but for local journalists who are already accredited by ZMC, this is an unfair move meant to control and manipulate the media practitioners and, ultimately, the information that gets into the public domain,” said Tawanda Majoni, national coordinator of the Information for Development Trust, a local non-profit working with local investigative journalists.

The Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) has also added its voice to the controversy around double accreditation.

“The issue of accreditation is a major concern as we have over successive elections we have approached the authorities highlight the issue of dual accreditation which is tantamount to double taxation,” said Tabani Moyo, MISA regional director.

“Government must rethink this issue as it is tantamount to attempts to deny ordinary people who are voter’s access to information,” Moyo told IPS.

Pressure continues to mount on the government to create a safe working environment for journalists, but with only a few months before the June national elections, confidence is waning among analysts.

“It seems unlikely there will be conditions in place for equitable media access in media coverage in the run-up to elections. We have not really seen this in any election period,” said Piers Pigou, a senior southern Africa analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

“It is the arena of broadcast media that presents the major challenges both in terms of who gets access and the content of what is put out there. We have not seen proper independence of the media,” Pigou told IPS.

“It is highly unlikely that we are going to see independent media voices operating effectively and the majority of Zimbabweans will able to access crucial information,” he added.

An unfettered press is seen by analysts as playing an important role for international observers to get an informed view of pre-election conditions in a country where the government has not been too keen to allow observers free movement.

“The role of international monitors should be to assess the wider conditions that include issues around access and content of the press. One would expect observation teams to reflect on that, but that will also depend on the teams allowed in the country,” Pigou told IPS.

Concerns about election reporting conditions in Zimbabwe come after Reporters Without Borders reported last year that conditions for working as a journalist in Zimbabwe continue to decline amid the arrest and detention of journalists during the course of their constitutionally protected duties.

“We cannot expect the relevant stakeholders to ensure sufficient reforms in four or so months when not much had been done in four decades,” Majoni said.

“That means we are going into the 2023 elections with a muzzled media. Since the media is severely constrained, it means it’s ill-prepared to cover the elections. In essence, therefore, the elections are already discredited because free media is a necessary condition for democratic polls,” Majoni told IPS.

While UNESCO says “the protection and safety of journalists and media personnel are key to the advancement of democracy and general development of society,” critics contend that Zimbabwe has continued to disregard those internationally recognised benchmarks, raising concerns about the role of the press in free and fair elections.

“We are in the tenth year of the UN Action Plan on the safety of journalists. Those who violate the rights of journalists with impunity and those who have a reflex to attack journalists during elections must be brought to book,” Moyo told IPS.