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Newspaper Sector Grows, Political Spectrum Still NarrowPosted by: admin on Fri, 2011-06-24 11:34
Since last June, the government has been churning out licenses for new print media outlets. Is the right to information and free speech being served? Chief K. Masimba Biriwasha reports.
If you measure Zimbabwe’s print media landscape in numbers, the past year has been good. As AudienceScapes has reported, the addition of three independently owned papers – NewsDay, Daily News and The Mail – makes for a total of seven daily newspapers currently circulating in the country. But this spike in activity begs the question: Are citizens benefiting from the growth in print media?
“The arrival of new players is refreshing but whether they are contributing to the public sphere is another matter,” said Earnest Mudzengi, Executive Director at the Media Centre in Zimbabwe. “However, there’s an opportunity for more voices and opinions to be heard, but whether this is happening is another issue altogether.”
Plenty of print options
The seven daily newspapers include the two state-owned dailies, The Herald and The Chronicle, and tabloids H-Metro and B-Metro. Add to this a batch of weeklies including The Sunday Mail, The Zimbabwe Independent, The Standard, The Zimbabwean, The Worker, The Zimbabwean on Sunday, The Financial Gazette, The Manica Post and The Patriot among others. A flurry of South African-based newspapers has also begun encroaching on the Zimbabwean market, including The Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian and Business Day.
At the same time, several Zimbabwe-focused online newspapers have emerged in the past decade. Online news platform include www.NewZimbabwe.com, http://www.newzimbabwe.com/, ZimDaily; ZimEye; ZimOnline; ZWnews among others. It is important to stress that many of the online news platforms have been accused of sensationalism and unethical journalism. Most of them are hosted and run by Zimbabweans outside the country with very little accountability to local audiences.
According to media analysts, the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), the government body responsible for media registrations, licensed a total of 22 publications since June last year.
The ZMC’s registration of numerous newspapers and magazines may be merely a cosmetic reform, said Mudzengi. He points to the fact that the ZMC has failed to issue a single broadcasting license in the same period of time, prompting complaints from other advocates for independent media. The state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation remains the sole broadcaster in the country and its coverage is largely in favor of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party.
To license print media outlets only is inadequate, according to Mudzengi, because radio remains the most effective medium for reaching Zimbabweans.
Quality of reporting in doubt
Despite the anemic state of the broadcasting sector, the print media sector appears to offer a semblance of diversity. Yet, a critical analysis reveals that the newspapers are not really serving the information needs of audiences. For one, the coverage of issues in the newspapers has become highly predictable.
“It has become very easy to predict what appears in most newspapers without reading the whole paper – save for sports pages, which actually give the best coverage despite the fact that most disciplines are not widely covered,” said Leonard Kari, an avid newspaper reader who lives in Harare.
“On the first page of most of our newspapers we have not seen much diversity in terms of coverage. It is largely more of the same. We need from the new papers a proffering of alternatives from the same-old polarized politics,” said Mudzengi, adding that much of the reportage in the local newspapers lacked exuberance and vibrancy. “There is a continuation of polarization in the media. We need more media debate around political issues and key processes such as constitution-making in the country.”
Most of the newspapers mirror the divided nature of Zimbabwe’s political landscape, which is dominated by ZANU PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Generally, papers act as a mouthpiece for either the ZANU PF or MDC at the expense of telling compelling stories that are of relevance to the lives and livelihoods of Zimbabweans.
Government-owned papers have exploited their hitherto dominance of the market to act as cheerleaders for Mugabe and to denigrate Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, according to a report on Zimbabwe’s new print media in the Global Post. On the other hand, the independently owned media often adopt a stance critical of President Mugabe and the ZANU PF to the extent that they are perceived as mouthpieces of the opposition.
“Many voices are left out in the national political dialogue and many voices have been silenced and have died a silent death,” said Kari. “There are very few development stories which one can glean from our publications. Headlines are obsessed with politics yet very few people are benefiting from this kind of news coverage.”
Further, the same experts and sources are quoted frequently among all the newspapers. It appears that the newspapers lack ambition to expand the circle of the so-called experts that comment on issues of national relevance.
Limited audience for print media
To make matters worse, the distribution of newspaper products in Zimbabwe is largely urban-centric. The majority of the population – approximately 70 percent of the population – is effectively left out. According to Dr. Ibbo Mandaza, a former newspaper publisher, 80 percent of the newspaper sales take place in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city. It is not surprising that the voices of rural folk are marginalized in newspaper reports.
Even for urban residents, newspapers are a luxury many cannot afford. Mandaza noted that the cost of many of the newspapers – ranging from US 50 cents to $2 – is beyond the reach of many Zimbabweans. While there are many newspapers now on the Zimbabwean market, advertising – the financial lifeblood of newspapers – is very low in most of the publications, raising questions about their sustainability.
“The arrival of new newspapers was long overdue but it’s too early to tell whether the papers will proffer an alternative point of view and whether they will be financially viable,” said Mandaza. “What is happening in Zimbabwe is not new – it happened in Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania but it’s too early to tell whether the papers are doing an efficient job.”
Mandaza said that there was a failure by the new print media to understand the reader. He added that in terms of technical capacity, the government-owned newspapers were far stronger than the new newspapers.
Observers of Zimbabwe’s media industry have suggested that local newspapers should revisit their mandate which is to inform, educate and entertain while ensuring a plurality of voices and a diversity of issues covered in order to influence a new conversation in the country.
Chief K. Masimba Biriwasha
The author is a journalist from Zimbabwe with an extensive background in development and communication policy. He blogs at http://ziviso.wordpress.com/
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