IT’S less than a two weeks before Zimbabwe goes to its first election ever since Robert Mugabe was pushed out of power through a military coup.
The election will also be historic in the sense that it happens less than six months after the death of Morgan Tsvangirai who has been the face of opposition politics since the turn of the millennium.
There have been signs of positive change in terms of levelling the political playing field although some areas still require enormous political will.
These include the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), a politicization of traditional leaders, repealing of repressive laws and ensuring unequal access to the public media.
Unlike in the Mugabe era where opposition political parties were openly victimized, intimidated and arrested on the grounds of flimsy trumped up charges, the Mnangagwa-led transitional arrangement has opened up political space for campaigning.
Most opposition presidential candidates including Nelson Chamisa, Noah Manyika, Joice Mujuru and Nkosana Moyo, have managed to go around the country canvassing for political support without encountering any major restrictions and political violence.
Since the turn of the century, the opposition political parties have found it difficult to campaign in rural areas and even in some cases were not allowed by partisan traditional leaders to hold rallies in their areas of jurisdiction.
Furthermore, legal repression in the form of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) made it difficult for opposition parties and candidates to get police clearance to hold rallies. Rural areas were largely no-go areas for the opposition parties.
The President Emmerson Mnangagwa has on a number of occasions promised the local, regional and international community that his government will deliver on a free, fair and credible election.
In line with his promise, the country has witnessed some commendable shifts especially around the amendment of the Electoral Act in parliament, the coverage of the MDC Alliance manifesto launch by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and also the High Court judgment which banned and prohibited traditional leaders from making further political statements on their involvement or allegiance to ZANU-PF on any public platform.
This instalment is focused on teasing out some of the opportunities and gaps within the current media environment, which can be harnessed in order to level the electoral playing field in Zimbabwe.
So what is an even electoral playing field?
There are many definitions in political science and international relations but there is a consensus that the term has genealogical roots in the idea of distributive justice. As such, the term is concerned with the important principle of equality of opportunity.
Equality of opportunity relates to the opportunity of individuals to make informed choices through eliminating initial inequalities not chosen by the individual, and providing fair conditions for interaction and participation.
Therefore, fair participation is very critical to our appreciation of the link between an even playing field and democratic electoral competition. This is partly because [fair] competition is the cornerstone of democracy. However, for competition to be democratic it depends on the degree of contestability.
In other words, contestability refers to the fairness of the political contest between political actors and parties. There are many factors, which are crucial for any election to pass the test of contestability.
These include fair access to the campaign finance and field, access to the public media, independence of the electoral management bodies, impartiality of the judiciary and security forces, transparency in voter registration and independence of traditional leaders.
In short, the concept of level playing field refers to a situation where no group participating in an election has a better chance of winning as a result of unfair conditions.
Thus, the field can be described as uneven when it favours the incumbent at the expense of the competitors. It can also be classified as even when it allows all political actors to have an equal opportunity to be elected by the masses.
In order to assess whether or not the electoral playing field during an election is even, it is important to assess how, where, why and when the opposition’s ability to organize and compete in elections is seriously handicapped as a result of incumbency advantage over the media space throughout the electoral cycle.
An uneven playing field is there defined as one in which incumbent abuse of the state generates such disparities in access to media, or even digital communication channels that opposition parties’ ability to organize and compete for national office is seriously impaired.
Generally, the public media’s coverage of opposition politics in Zimbabwe has largely been negative and skewed in favour of the ruling party. Public media institutions like ZBC and Zimpapers are generally appendages of ZANU-PF largely used for propaganda purposes.
Legal instruments such as the Access to Information Protection and Privacy Act (AIPPA) have also been used to curtail freedom of expression and journalism practice. Journalists working for private media houses have been arrested and deregistered using some of these draconian pieces of legislation.
Several media houses have been closed while others have had their studios and printing presses bombed.
Despite the coming in of the so-called ‘new’ dispensation, little has been done to align media laws with the 2013 Constitution. Intrusive surveillance laws such as the Interception of Communication Act (ICA) continue to provide an uncomfortable chilling effect on the operations of professional and citizen journalists.
Excuses and empty promises have been dished out without any significant movement on the ground suggesting that the ‘new’ regime has the political will to reform media laws and policies.
There are several opportunities for the country to demonstrate that it is now “open for business” by also opening up the media space.
The current mantra that “Zimbabwe is open for business” remains a high sounding nothing unless and until the government amends media laws that impede journalism practice and media operations such as AIPPA and the Broadcasting Services Act.
Although the ZBC has begun to broadcast interviews conducted with opposition parties and candidates on the campaign trail. More still needs to be done in terms of ensuring equal access to live radio and television broadcasting of rallies and town hall meetings.
These elections provide an opportunity for the ZBC to show the world that it has transformed from a partisan state broadcaster into a fully-fledged public service broadcaster. There are already signs that ZBC News Online can cover opposition parties and candidates in a balanced and fair manner.
ZBC must also ensure that all the parties have equal access to television advertisements, talk show programmes and live outside broadcasting of rallies.
Presenters of talk show programmes have a duty to remain impartial during the moderation of programmes and audience engagement with viewers and listeners via phones (fixed and mobile), social media pages and website comments.
ZBC has the widest reach and is owned by the public and, thus, it is duty bound to ensure that they provide balanced news and any partisanship has to be done away with.
In the past, ZBC has used exorbitant pricing of television and radio adverts as a way of muscling out opposition parties from the public media space.
There is urgent need for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission in consultation with regulatory authorities (such as the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) and POTRAZ) to come up with a pricing model for all print, broadcast and online adverts so that smaller parties are not marginalized from the mainstream public sphere.
ZEC has a mandate in terms of Section 160K (1) of the Electoral Act to monitor media coverage during election periods. According to the ZEC Roadmap for 2018 Harmonised Elections, this will be done through the Media Monitoring Committee.
In terms of Section 160K (1), BAZ as well as ZMC, may at ZEC’s invitation, participate in media monitoring during the election period. ZEC must move with speed to establish a media monitoring committee, which also incorporates civil society organizations like Kubatana.net, Media Monitors and MISA Zimbabwe.
It is therefore advisable for ZEC to collaborate with other stakeholders in media monitoring because as it is currently the electoral management body has no specialised knowledge of media-related issues.
Partnering with stakeholders from civil society that have the experience and expertise to monitor media coverage during election periods would enhance ZEC’s abilities, boost public confidence and transparency of the media monitoring process during the 2018 elections.
Appearing before Parliamentary Committee on Media, ICT and Cyber Security on media reporting during elections, the ZEC Chairperson Justice Priscilla Chigumba raised concerns over the unavailability of statutes to govern election reporting by new media.
The issue should necessarily be about new media regulation but ensuring citizens are responsible users of ICTs. This will go a long way in curbing the proliferation of fake news, misinformation, cyber-propaganda, online harassment and cyberbullying.
There are also best practices on how to monitor and regulate hate speech online harassment and cyber-bullying from Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission.
The Kenyan government hired bloggers to monitor sites for inflammatory content on specific social media platforms. The National Human Rights Commission of Kenya also used Ushahidi to deal with online aggression.
Besides broadcast and online media, there is also need to ensure that both public and private press act professionally and impartially in terms of electoral coverage.
The public press like The Herald, The Chronicle, Manica Post and Sunday Mail are notorious for representing opposition parties and candidates in a negative light while showering the ruling party with positive coverage.
Over and above these structural issues relates to media and electoral reforms. There is a need for media diversity (in terms of language, thematic issues, geographic coverage and cultural representations) for fairness to be attained during the campaign electoral season.
Media plurality alone is not enough for offering the electorate with a diverse set of news needed to make informed choices.
Going forward, the licensing of private community radio and television stations should occupy the centre stage in order to expose the electorate to as much campaign information as possible.
There is an opportunity to license more television and radio stations. This is important especially in light of the government’s digitization programme, which promises to make available additional channels for radio and television broadcasting.
The media space must be open and fair for both men and women as well as between the old and the young. Given the patriarchal set up of our society, media spaces are often dominated by male sources and analysts whilst females are marginalized.
Female candidates, for instance, face several hurdles to access the media space. They are often spoken for rather than given a space to articulate their electoral promises and demands.
More needs to be done to ensure a level playing field. At the level of the media, there is an urgent need to address the draconian laws, working conditions of journalists, the safety of journalists and building resilient media institutions.
Dr Admire Mare is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. Here, he writes in his personal capacity.