Zimbabwe newspaper publishers fume over ‘bankrupt’ ZEC’s refusal to run 2023 election adverts amid murky US$40m Chivayo tenders

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By Staff Reporter

INDEPENDENT media entrepreneurs have come out guns blazing after it emerged the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) denied their newspapers critical election advertisements ahead of 2023 polls pleading bankruptcy, yet the same public institution splurged US$40 million on shady tenders awarded to controversial businessman, Wicknell Chivayo.

Community Newspapers’ Association of Zimbabwe (CNAZ), an umbrella body representing 18 publishers from across the country, said denial of ZEC advertisements had dealt a huge blow to the sustainability of the enterprise, which has been forced to retrench journalists and other staff.

In a scathing public statement issued Thursday, CNAZ Chairman, Matthew Takaona (pictured) said ZEC also shortchanged the electorate by starving them of vital elections information and education materials that should have been run in various publications, but chose to abuse taxpayers’ money lining an individual’s pockets.

“The CNAZ executive committee notes with grave concern reports of alleged murky tender deals worth US$40 million entered into between ZEC, businessman Wicknell Chivayo and his associates.

“The report alleges that the tenders were inflated by 265%. This report by News Hawks in its edition of May 24-30, 2024, comes at a time when ZEC cancelled advert bookings for all community newspapers during the 2023 harmonised elections on the guise that the Commission was broke and did not have money to spend on publicising election information to the electorate,” said Takaona, proprietor of The Mirror based in Masvingo.

He said CNAZ made frantic efforts to get adverts for its 18 members from the Commission even if this meant getting just some of them.

“In the process we met various authorities including the then Minister of Information, Mrs Monica Mutsvangwa, ZEC Deputy Chairman Rodney Kiwa and the Zimbabwe Media Commission.

“All the three persuaded ZEC to support local community newspapers with adverts as has been the arrangement for the past two decades and Mrs Mutsvangwa went to the point of writing a letter to the ZEC Chairperson, Priscilla Chigumba.”

The media body said election adverts have over the years been a lifeline for community newspapers.

“They enabled community media to retool and recapitalise. During the time of Mr George Charamba as Permanent Secretary of Information and Dr Tafataona Mahoso, as ZMC CEO, a resolution was made that because government cannot set a Media Fund to support the media as required by the law, election adverts from ZEC will instead be used.

“Since 2000, every election had seen ZEC setting aside an advertising budget for community newspapers. We were, therefore, shocked when this arrangement was revoked without any explanation.

“This is not how transparency and good governance works.The failure by ZEC to give adverts to community newspapers weakened most of the newspapers and this has seen over 60% closing down or partially closing and yet others retrenching significantly and altering contracts for staffers from full time to part time,” Takaona said.

He added that dozens of journalists and media workers dependent on community newspapers lost jobs while organisations lost the opportunity to expand their operations.

CNAZ, which is represented in all provinces, said it unequivocally condemns corruption and the abuse of national resources for personal gain of a few individuals at the expense of a whole industry.

The media body put a list of demands which includes a transparent system and clear criteria of issuance of adverts to newspapers by ZEC.

CNAZ alleges ZEC was working against President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s mantra of “leaving no one and no place behind” by selectively awarding adverts to few State and private media players.

“The arrangement where adverts are given to a narrow group of media outlets is not in the national spirit espoused by President Mnangagwa… this approach by ZEC is anti-media and not in the spirit pledged by President Mnangagwa of supporting industry and creating jobs.

“We urge the ministry and ZMC in their constitutional obligations to support the media; to come to the table and thrash out a clear, transparent policy on how ZEC adverts should be distributed and to review how last year’s adverts were distributed and the criteria used thereof as well as to audit the effectiveness of the information dissemination arrangement that ZEC used last year.”

Takaona reiterated the statement was made in the genuine spirit of developing Zimbabwe’s media industry, which now trails far behind other countries.

“A weak Fourth Estate means a weak executive, a weak legislature and naturally a weak judiciary because the checks-and-balances system is broken,” said the CNAZ chairman.