For the first time in the country’s broadcasting history the national public broadcaster, ZBC, exposed Zimbabweans to a tidal wave of political advertising and programming from all political contestants in the two weeks leading up to Zimbabwe’s historical national elections.
The many hours of advertising and party political broadcasts that briefly flooded the airwaves gave the impression that ZBC was adhering to local laws and regional guidelines governing the performance of the media during an election.MMPZ welcomed this unprecedented access to the Zimbabwean public by political parties and candidates through the services of the ZBC.
However, the content of the national public broadcaster’s news coverage of contesting political parties during an election period is also controlled by the same broadcasting regulations, which demand balanced, fair, complete and accurate coverage of the contestants.
Indeed, these values must be embedded in the mandate of all national public broadcasting organisations by virtue of the fact that they are funded by public money and should fairly reflect the full diversity of opinion nationwide. Fair, balanced and accurate reporting represent nothing less than basic international requirements of professional journalistic practice and adherence to these values form the benchmark of any media institution’s credibility.
Violation of electoral law
But the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s grossly partisan news coverage in favour of the ruling party in the campaign leading up to these elections again demonstrated its total disdain for the public mandate it holds to provide a fair and credible news service to the people of Zimbabwe. In doing so it continued to violate Zimbabwe’s broadcasting and electoral laws with impunity.
MMPZ has been monitoring the output of ZBC’s news programmes during the recent election campaign and its findings reveal the severity of the broadcaster’s bias in favour of Zanu (PF).
For example, of the nine hours and 20 minutes ZTV devoted to reporting the contesting parties’ election campaign activities in its main news bulletins (7am, 6pm and 8pm) between March 1 and the eve of Election Day, eight hours and 44 minutes (an incredible 93.5 per cent) provided favourable coverage of Zanu (PF)’s activities in 189 reports.
The remaining 36 minutes were divided among the ruling party’s political opposition, including both factions of the MDC (31 reports), independent presidential candidate Simba Makoni (14 reports), and other minor political contestants (two reports). Although most of these 47 reports were a neutral or fair reflection of the event covered, ZTV allowed ruling party officials lengthy sound bites to discredit the opposition, often employing excessively offensive and inflammatory language to do so.
The broadcaster also made it a habit of burying’ the little news they did carry about the opposition deep in their bulletins and omitted information that would help viewers assess the popularity of those opposition contestants covered.
Of the 36 minutes afforded the opposition in ZTV’s news bulletins in March the MDC (both factions) were covered in 31 stories, six of them negatively, while Makoni was covered on 14 occasions, only one of which was categorised as being negative.
[xhead]TV time is precious time
In terms of the number of stories, the domination of the ruling party’s coverage on ZTV still translates into an 80 per cent advantage compared to 13 per cent for the MDC and just six per cent for Makoni. However, for television, it is the precious time granted on a news bulletin – the exposure – that represents real extent of that station’s bias, especially when every second of it is favourable.
MMPZ is obliged to note that the extent of openly biased coverage against the opposition in ZBC’s news reporting during this election campaign declined significantly compared to its performance in past elections where their reporters and presenters inserted negative editorial opinions without restraint.
News coverage by the radio stations under ZBC’s control followed a similar pattern to that set by ZTV.
In the first 28 days of March leading up to the elections Radio Zimbabwe carried 161 stories on political party campaign activities in its main news bulletins of the day (7am, 1pm and 8pm), 140 (87 per cent) of these favourably reported the activities of Zanu (PF). Only 21 stories covered the political opposition MDC (both factions), 12 (7.5 per cent) and Makoni nine (5.6 per cent)), four of which – all against the MDC – were tainted by negative editorial insertions.
The same goes for SPOT FM. Its bulletins carried 246 stories on political parties’ activities, 213 (86 per cent) of them favourable reports on the ruling party.
To exacerbate this bias, all three stations were regularly used as public noticeboards for the ruling party, for example notifying their audiences of the dates and locations of Zanu (PF) rallies.
Such extreme bias in favour of the ruling party places ZBC firmly in the category of a propaganda tool for Zanu (PF) and destroys any pretence the organisation has to being a national public broadcaster.
[xhead]Monopoly is wrong
In short, ZBC became the private broadcaster for the ruling party and government during the recent election campaign at the expense of all other political opinion.
This represents an intolerable abuse of the national public broadcaster by the authorities and is compounded by the fact that ZBC continues to enjoy a total monopoly over all radio and television broadcasting in Zimbabwe, despite a Supreme Court judgment eight years ago declaring such a monopoly unconstitutional on the grounds that it interferes with Zimbabweans’ right to freedom of choice and expression.
This appalling performance is nothing new, for it reflects exactly the same bias of ZBC’s news output in all previous election campaigns MMPZ has monitored.
In fact, these figures reflect a consistent trend in the daily coverage of ZBC’s reporting of political events even between elections.
So it is not surprising that the bias reached hysterical levels of favouritism during this recent election campaign.
The figures, which dip only marginally in periods between elections, clearly illustrate the urgent need for the complete reform of the control and management structure of ZBC to give it the independence that will enable it to provide the professional service the people of Zimbabwe deserve. This could not be achieved under the political climate existing at the time of the recent elections and under existing laws.
It is therefore MMPZ’s view that one of the more important tasks of any new political dispensation that emerges as a result of last week’s elections will be to reform the laws affecting the business of broadcasting in Zimbabwe – indeed, all the media laws – and to demand that the national public broadcaster returns to its mandate to provide an impartial, fair and accurate news service to the people of this country.
ZBC’s slavish obedience to the whims of the authorities in stage-managing the delayed release of the election results only serves to reinforce the urgent need for a broadcaster that is free of political control.ZTV allowed ruling party officials lengthy sound bites to discredit the opposition, often employing excessively offensive and inflammatory language to do so.Post published in: News