A dangerous profession

Working for privately-owned media in Zimbabwe means consciously facing serious risks

Zimbabwean journalist and documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono (R) watches while police search of his offices in Harare on July 21, 2020,  a day after he was arrested and charged with incitement to commit public violence. Chin’ono and opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume were the latest among several of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s critics to be arrested or have their homes raided and searched ahead of protests planned for July 31, 2020. He has been denied bail twice. PHOTO JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP)

The term “fourth estate” to describe the press is generally attributed to British MP Lord Thomas Macaulay, who is said to have used it in reference to members of the press seated in the House of Commons gallery in 1828. The media was seen as the necessary additional element of democracy that would serve as a watchdog of the other three arms of government. Since then, this characterisation of the media has had profound significance in understanding the role and place of the media in modern society. This thinking is summed up in an op-ed piece by former Zimbabwe Independent editor Dumisani Muleya, first published on the newspaper’s website and allegedly retracted on instruction of the owner of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) on 4 October, 2019. The piece was later republished by ZimLive, an online media entity: “The main objective of journalism should be serving the public interest. It should never be prostituted for self-serving ends, be they political or commercial interests; or indeed the whims of publishers, editors’ caprices and readers’ worst instincts.”

It is only by serving this objective that the media can fulfil its role as the fourth estate, as an important element of democracy. Hence, the arguments for a free press. This philosophy has largely informed the development and role of the private media in Zimbabwe, thus putting them at loggerheads with the ruling party, ZANU-PF, and its government. The private media in Zimbabwe have experienced various forms of state harassment and repression. Journalists have been tortured, disappeared, arrested, detained without charges, brutally beaten. Pressrooms have been bombed and teargassed. Since everyone knows this, working for privately-owned media in this country means consciously facing serious risks. Over the years, the state’s muzzling of privately-owned media has seen a number of particular low points. There was the torture of Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka – journalist and editor of the Standard, respectively – by the army in 1999 for reporting a foiled coup. The Harare-based Daily News was bombed twice, on 22 April, 2000 and 28 January, 2001, before it was closed under the controversial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in 2002.

Andrew Meldrum, a correspondent for The Economist and The Guardian in Zimbabwe, was arrested in 2002 and forcibly deported in 2003. This was followed by a ban on foreign media houses in the country. And then there was the disappearance on 9 March, 2015 of Itai Dzamara, a freelance journalist and outspoken critic of Zimbabwe’s then president, Robert Mugabe. More recently, the Reporters without Borders 2020 Press Freedom Rankings puts Zimbabwe at 126 out of 181 countries. In his 2012 book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, William Dobson argues that authoritarian regimes around the world are growing more sophisticated. They understand that “ the more brutal forms of intimidations – mass arrests, firing squads, and violent crackdowns” are counterproductive, and “best replaced with more subtle forms of coercion”. Modern authoritarians, he continues, understand the importance of appearances, which is why they “pepper their speeches with references to liberty, justice and the rule of law”. The result is that “from a distance, many of the world’s leading authoritarians look almost democratic”. Zimbabwe’s small ruling elite has, apparently, learned some lessons as regards the ways it seeks to control the media.

The process began with the government of national unity (2009/2010), and intensified during the period leading to the rise of Emmerson Mnangagwa to Zimbabwe’s presidency. Mnangagwa was initially labelled a reformist and someone who understood the needs of business, perceptions he capitalised on to consolidate his power base. As Dobson argues, “many features of a modern authoritarian regime are individually not at odds with a healthy democracy”. For instance, an official inquiry into the state of the media industry in 2014 made far-reaching recommendations that suggested the possibility of media reforms, but the report simply gathered dust. A number of new radio stations have been licensed, but these are linked to state-owned media or individuals loyal to the ruling party. Recently, applications for broadcasting rights for commercial television, community radio stations and campus radio stations were invited, but applications were attached to steep licensing fees. By falling for the regime’s narrative, Zimbabwe’s privately-owned media have fallen into a Charybdis – the monster/whirlpool of Greek mythology.

The political interests of the ruling elites and the business interests of the publishers have found common ground, argues Dr Pedzisai Ruhanya, a University of Johannesburg Media and Democracy Scholar, in a 2018 article, ‘The Plight of the Private Press During the Zimbabwe Crisis (2010-2018)’. Another writer, Tatenda Prosper Chitagu agrees. In a 2018 study of the relationship between Zimbabwe’s private media and the ruling party, Chitagu argued that coverage by two privately owned papers of the recent power struggles within Zanu-PF “mirrored a society on the edge”. The papers had “fixated … on infighting within Zanu-PF”, which narrowed their coverage of others issues. Meanwhile, allegations of brown envelope journalism have become more insistent and widespread as journalists have had to endure poor working conditions and increased workloads. They have also had to deal with pay cuts, sometimes going for months without salaries. The country’s weak economy has hit publishers and media house owners; dwindling corporate advertising revenues have left government and parastatals as the major source of income, which appear to have taken advantage of the situation to buy the acquiescence, or silence, of private media.

As an example, Muleya’s controversial exit from the editorship of the Zimbabwe Independent in October 2019 raised a heated debate about the present condition of the private media in Zimbabwe – and its future. It is widely believed that Trevor Ncube, the owner of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), the publisher of the Zimbabwe Independent, had to change editors critical of the Mnangagwa administration after reconciling his stance towards the government after the fall of Mugabe. Social media reports claim that Mnangagwa bought a 30% stake in AMH for $2 million via his son in-law, Gerald Mlotshwa. These claims were further given currency by a photo of Ncube and Faith Zaba (the newly appointed editor of the Zimbabwe Independent) handing Mnangagwa a framed Newsday headline about the then-impending coup during November 2017: Mugabe Out in Weeks – Claims Mnangagwa. However, Prudence Mutsvanga, the company secretary of AMH, rejected the claims in a public statement in October last year, denying that Mnangagwa or anyone representing him had been in “negotiations” with AMH. Similar claims have also been made regarding the purchase and merger of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), publishers of the Daily News, with Modus Publications, publishers of the Financial Gazette, into one media stable in 2017.

It is believed that former Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono sold his ANZ shareholding to Mlotshwa. This change in shareholding saw a change in editorial structure and the elevation of journalists perceived as friendly to the Mnangagwa administration. However, the shareholding structures of Zimbabwean media operations are murky terrain, meaning that financial journalists and commentators often rely on rumour and off-the-record information. As Ruhanya comments in the article cited earlier, “[The] [s]hareholdings and ownership structures of newspapers are not always transparent”. But the buying-off of critical private media is not new in Zimbabwe. In 2005 the Irish Times reported that Zimbabwe’s intelligence organisation, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIO), had secretly invested in the Financial Gazette, the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror. However, there are indications of a growing and active online community, as reported by Zimbabwe’s Postal and Telecommunications Authority in 2016 and the National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) in 2014. Active mobile phone penetration was at 13 million subscribers, or around 97% of the population, according to the ZIMSTAT report.

Internet subscriptions were at 6,7 million, or about 50.1% of the population. Some 37% of data use in Zimbabwe was spent on WhatsApp and Facebook, while some $167 million was spent on calls, data and internet during the same period. This has seen the rise and exponential growth of new media operations such as Bus Stop TV, Magamba TV, CITE, Big Saturday Read, Gravitas Bulletin, Comic Pastor and @263 Chat, among others. These media have helped to keep power accountable by reporting on corruption in the public sector and other issues of public interest. Magamba TV, Bus Stop TV and Comic Pastor have become known for using political satire to stimulate discourse on so-called hot topics. Gravitas Bulletin and Big Saturday Read, through op-eds, have stretched the limits of traditional media in discussing public affairs. CITE, meanwhile, has managed to use online documentaries to give voice to the victims of the 1980s genocide in Matabeleland who previously had been unheard. However, Zimbabwe’s worsening economic crisis has seen rising data costs and depleted incomes, meaning that citizens have less to spend on communications.

Moreover, the ruling party has come up with strategies aimed at muzzling and muting online debate. Speaking in Shona at a ZANU-PF youth meeting during the July 2018 election campaign, Mnangagwa instructed the youth league: “Tambai navo muSocial Media imomo. Musakundwe muSocial Media. Pindai, morakasha vanhu muSocial Media”. (Loosely translated as “Go and engage with them on social media. Make sure you defeat and destroy our opponents on social media.”) This saw the christening of ZANUPF’s new online army, known as the Varakashi (the destroyers), whose purpose appears to be to cyberbully or harass government critics into silence. “Civil society leaders, opposition activists, independent media and even foreign embassies have been the subject of targeted online campaigns laced with vitriolic language,” according to a 2019 article on the Global Voices site, an online community of journalists, translators, academics and human rights activists. The attacks involve “a mix of fake news, rumour, hate speech, disinformation and misinformation” in a bid to discredit alternative voices, according to the article.

A case in point is that of comedian Samantha (Gonyeti) Kureya of Bus Stop TV, who was reportedly abducted by unidentified armed men, stripped, beaten and forced to drink sewerage in August last year. She later told reporters that her attackers warned her about mocking the government in her skits. A junior government minister, however, tweeted that Kureya had faked the abduction to obtain donor funding. As Global Voices points out, “mis- and disinformation” are able to flourish due to a variety of factors: extreme polarisation in the media, proposed government controls over social media, poor official communication methods and low digital literacy among internet users”. The Varakashi have sometimes gone further than merely attacking bloggers. A case in point was their attempt to cyberbully Dr Alex Magaisa, a law lecturer based at Kent University in the UK and publisher of the Big Saturday Read, a popular critical blog on public affairs in Zimbabwe. A pro-government social media troll, @CdeNMaswerasei (Cde Never Maswerasei), launched a petition on change.org imploring Kent University to break ties with Magaisa.

Other techniques, used on Twitter and Facebook, are to energetically post items on unrelated subjects or spam chat threads. A recent fallout, in January 2020, between presidential spokesperson George Charamba and a supposed Varakashi, Kudzai Mutisi, tweeting as @ KMutisi, has inadvertently given credence to the thesis that the government pays online social media trolls. Charamba chastised Mutisi for failing to toe the official line and said he was holding to ridicule “the very system that pays [him]”. This raised eyebrows: a senior member of the government was admitting that it paid trolls to defend the party. Given this, we might question the ability of the Zimbabwean media to play their role as the fourth estate in the interest of the public and of democracy. There are a number of questions that arise: how can the media be supported in complex environments such as Zimbabwe? What opportunities do new digital media offer and how can they be consolidated? How do you address issues of access to online media, given rising data costs and depleting incomes? What kind of journalism is required in the current environment, and what capacity building strategies are needed? And how should the problem of emerging media monopolies, particularly in Africa, be addressed?

For Hopewell Chin’ono’s Africa in Fact article on media in Zimbabwe click here.

For more on the perils of journalism in Africa, click here.

For more on media freedom in Africa click here.

Tamuka Charles Chirimambowa is co-founder and editor of Gravitas Bulletin. He is currently studying for DLitt. et. Philosophy in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg. Tamuka has worked extensively with civil society in Zimbabwe and South Africa, on issues of human rights, governance and democracy, migrant’s rights, economic policy and social justice. He is keenly interested in the socio-political and economic transformation of post-colonial African societies.

Rethinking development policy paradigms

Inclusive state-society and economic relations in Zimbabwe will mean the creation of an inclusive growth model to address poverty and inequality

Emily Chikide, chicken vendor. PHOTO Sadat Sanhehwe

Since November 2017’s “military assisted transition” (read coup), Zimbabwe’s political elites have sought to shift from the radical nationalist and redistributive policies of the Mugabe years. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has outlined a new economic thrust that seeks to end Zimbabwe’s decades of isolation and integrate it within the community of nations, hence the mantra “Zimbabwe is open for business”. This supposed shift raises important questions, especially on what policy paradigms, institutional reforms and state structures Zimbabweans can adopt and use to make progress away from a political economy of cyclical crises.

Central to this is the envisaged role of the government (state apparatus), secondly, the role of the market and investment and, thirdly, how this functions in relation to the citizen. The interest of this article is to give some pointers  on possible lessons for Zimbabwe’s attempt to move out of crisis. The article draws lessons from how other countries that went through similar or related crises (post-war Germany, post-genocide Rwanda, China and South East Asia) managed to put their economies on a trajectory of industrial development and stable social relations and to engage effectively with global opportunities that have emerged in the post-cold war international political economy. To achieve this aim, the article points to the discourse of “economic constitutionalism” which was developed as a paradigm that balanced economic rights and development and social questions of integration, inclusion and stability.

In the post-colonial context, African countries have struggled to develop    a sustainable economic and social transformation trajectory that ensures inclusive growth, job creation and, importantly, eradicate poverty. Generally, economic and social policy paradigms have vacillated from one form of statism, some vague forms of “socialism” and, in some cases, free markets under structural adjustment (SAPs).

In Zimbabwe, particularly after 2000, the political class zig-zagged through a regime of policies, that of a political economy of cyclical crises, resulting in  a lack of capital investment projects, high unemployment (estimated at over 80%), eroded confidence in the fiscal and monetary policy regimes (read economy) and severe social strife. This crisis has revolved around five major areas. To highlight the level of profligacy on government spending, which is almost like “drunken sailors”, Professor Ashok Chakravati, a leading economist and advisor to government, (in New Zimbabwe, 2018) quotes the IMF that 40% of Zimbabwe’s salary budget, standing at 90% of GDP, goes to allowances for top administration executives.

Downtown Harare. PHOTO Sadat Sanhehwe

Firstly, state-society relations have been characterised by nationalist authoritarianism, meaning the state has used public power as a coercive mode of ensuring political survival, generating political polarity in the process. Secondly, state-market relations have been dominated by an interventionist, redistributive state and, in certain cases, pursuit of expropriation measures, and the effect has been that local and international capital has become very timid and unwilling to take any risks. Thirdly, as a consequence of this, the political-juridical regime has been unstable and very uncertain, especially in relation to property rights, with the effect that major sources of foreign direct investment  (FDI)  have passed  opportunities in Zimbabwe. Fourthly, these factors above have flowed into an almost collapsed public financial- management system characterised by spiralling sovereign debt, unheard of levels of inflation, the  introduction of  a   multi-currency   system   and   a dysfunctional public budgeting system with estimates of a $9 billion debt.

Fifth and lastly, a complex combination of these factors has led to international disengagement that has attracted a specific type of extractive capital that has failed to structurally transform the economy. Therefore, this extractive capital has only succeeded in fattening the pockets of the elites, failing to stimulate national aggregate demand and create opportunities for citizens. Every international rating index on Zimbabwe paints a sorry state of affairs, as shown in the table below.

Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular, can look elsewhere to learn new things and unlearn old ways of doing things. As highlighted above, the structural impediments that have restrained possibilities of sustained economic growth can be approached from a paradigm that has transformed economies elsewhere, especially in post-war Germany, post-Mao China and also South  East Asia.  In Africa, the way in which the political class in Rwanda is approaching the establishment of a stable policy regime deserves attention, especially in relation to economic policy stability balanced with social inclusion. However, the Rwandan story has its other side: the limitations on political and civil rights as seen in the case of Diane Rwigara, who spent more than a year in prison on baseless accusations simply for daring to challenge Paul Kagame (a discussion for another day). Critical to African economies is how to insulate citizens against the political discretion of public policy and market excesses but at the same time structure an economy that leads to inclusive growth within the context of globalisation. Gerber (2001:21) observed the urgency and asserted that “in a world in which globalisation is an increasingly powerful force” then “the need for guidance in structuring the relationship between governments and markets may be more important than ever before”. The outlines of economic constitutionalism are as follows:

The purpose of economic constitutionalism is to determine the due process of government economic actions. Economic constitutionalism can provide a set of constitutional economic commands for the social economic actions. It is a path that allows the state to intervene in the economy. Under the structure of economic constitutionalism, liberty and intervention can be balanced. Only the intervention defined and established by an economic democratic mechanism can avoid economic autocracy. The share of economic powers by both the state and the social members can safeguard the social and democratic nature of intervention (Feiuye, 2006:1).

The outlines of economic constitutionalism are relevant, especially for countries like Zimbabwe attempting to emerge out of a crisis steeped in failed nationalism and anti-developmental accumulation modes. The question is: what can Zimbabwe learn from these post-war/crisis countries, given its attempts to “rise from the rubble” (Sachikonye and Raftopoulos, 2018)? Simply put, especially considering the post-war German political economy    of  hyperinflation,  within  which  “economic  constitutionalism”  emerged, the defining characteristic is economic order and predictability to markets through an attempt to limit political discretion in public policy and hedging against the excesses of the market, therefore achieving the goals of social stability and inclusion.

This article has highlighted the structural impediments that have trapped Zimbabwe’s political economy in a cyclical crisis. Secondly, it  highlighted how other underdeveloped countries extricated themselves and, thirdly, it introduced the concept of “economic constitutionalism” and how it can be a way of re-establishing a stable policy paradigm. Within that context, it becomes important to highlight and outline some structural reforms that can remove the barriers. Firstly, it is important to point out that the Constitution of 2013 introduced critical frameworks, especially in balancing between individual and property rights, social stability and inclusion, and put in place institutions (like Chapter 12 Commissions) to put democratic checks and  transparency on the way the political class governs. Secondly,   the   government    has  set a tone of “open for business”, “austerity”, and re-engagement and achieving middle-income status by 2030, meaning a departure from the past practice of “casino economics”.

Gleaning from the concept of economic constitutionalism, the article ends by pointing out five areas. Firstly, public power, especially executive power, must be anchored-in, functional and be disciplined by the juridical-political framework set by the Constitution of 2013. Secondly, institutions established by the Constitution, especially the fiscal, monetary and parliamentary institutions, must be functional. Thirdly, state-society relations must move away from coercion towards ongoing social dialogue, inclusion and integration. Fourthly, state-market relations have to be governed by stable, predictable and well-defined paradigms. Fifth, there is a need to restore property rights and ensure the rule of law. In essence, addressing the above five factors has a twofold factor for Zimbabwe’s political economy.

First, it means a break with the past and an end to authoritarian economic nationalism. This will insulate the market from the political discretion of public policy, a problematique that has stifled the efficiency of the market. In addition, this means strengthening the other institutions of government – most importantly, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Public Finance and Budgeting, the Auditor General’s Office, the Public Financial Management Act, the State Procurement Board, and the Competitions and Tariffs Commission and the Independent Commissions – that play an oversight role to executive actions. Secondly, the identified five factors help to build an economic constitutional order that will hedge the economy from uncompetitive market forces. This means an end to the era of extractive and speculative capital and a move towards striking deals with stable capital that can structurally transform the economy and improve the country’s aggregate demand. In addition, the pursuit of inclusive state-society and economic relations will mean the creation of an inclusive growth model with active market citizens, hence addressing questions of poverty and inequality.

TAMUKA CHIRIMAMBOWA is the co-founder and editor of Gravitas Bulletin. He is currently studying towards a DLitt. et. Philosophy in development studies at the University of Johannesburg. He has worked extensively with civil society in Zimbabwe and South Africa on issues of human rights, governance and democracy, migrant’s rights, economic policy and social justice.