New perspectives: March 26 by-elections: Critical baseline to upscale advocacy for media reforms

Zimbabwean elections have since the turn of the millennium been disputed on a number of accounts including but not limited to documented cases of violence and voter intimidation, vote buying, allegations of electoral fraud and biased media among other issues.


The much anticipated March 26 by-elections across Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces have come and gone.

In what observers had termed a mini-general election, given the hype created in the days leading to the polling day, the dominant narrative post these elections has been to assess the country’s preparedness to hold a free, fair and credible plebiscite come 2023.

Zimbabwean elections have since the turn of the millennium been disputed on a number of accounts including but not limited to documented cases of violence and voter intimidation, vote buying, allegations of electoral fraud and biased media among other issues.

All these issues have persistently recurred each time the country goes for elections with minimum effort invested in addressing these challenges.

What is evident is that these challenges go beyond the voting process and/or outcome thereof but an indicator of a more complex and structural problem of shrinking democratic space and consolidation of power by the elite, mostly directly or indirectly in the executive arm of government.

Part of this consolidation involves tight monitoring and control of the public sphere through weakening of institutions supporting democracy such that power is centralised within a conflated arm of government.

The media, which ideally is collectively a critical arm of the state — the fourth estate as it were — has been one of the institutions that has often been targeted, weakened and in some cases paralysed to play any significant role in governance.

The state-controlled media, which by any measure has the lion share of the platforms of expression, has been embedded with the government.

This conflation of government and the media has at best description weakened journalism or at worst destroyed the craft.

The story angling and presentation of news is brazenly government centric and in the case of elections in favour of the ruling party.

There is shameless disregard of the provisions of the constitution and the electoral law.

Never mind the professional obligations.

That this illegality and unprofessionalism has been perpetuated with impunity demonstrates how the electoral commission’s media monitoring committee is also either embedded with the system or ill-equipped to enforce the codes governing media conduct during the elections.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), through its media monitoring committee is by law mandated to regulate the media during elections.

Over the years, the electoral commission has been engaging its sister commission, the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) to assist in the discharge of this function.

Yet even with the expertise in media regulation, there hasn’t been any attempt to enforce professional reportage and fair coverage of political contestants outside the rhetoric reports with findings, which assert that both the private and state-controlled media are biased.

This balancing act aimed at creating the impression that the media market forces are evenly playing out ignores the fundamental reality that at the end of the day, the ruling party always has an unfair advantage over the opposition in terms of media coverage.

There is evidence to this assertion obtained from reports compiled by media think tanks and knowledge management experts, Media Monitors.

In their empirical monitoring of the coverage of political parties across both privately and state-controlled media, there were findings to the effect that the sitting president and the ruling party had the most space and airtime.

These findings are hardly surprising.

The privately owned media is not only clouded in the market but its insignificant coverage of the ruling party adds to the widening of the platforms for the party, outside those they directly control.

Never mind that this control is illegal.

Not only has this control affected the operations of the media in terms of content generation, it has piled pressure on journalists to openly show allegiance to the ruling party, either to find favour within the establishment or to advance their careers and standing within the system.

There have been cases at which journalists have openly supported political parties or at worst have sought for political office while still serving as journalists.

This has compromised the integrity of the profession and in worst cases the safety of the journalists in question.

There is an obvious conflict of interests when practicing journalists openly participate in political party activities and to seek to represent the party during elections.

One wonders if the electoral commission’s monitoring committee is alive to these realities and their impact on the credibility of the media in the conduct of elections.

Their silence and non-committal action against these malpractices is deafening!

Beyond the control and structural weakening of the media, which has directly impacted on the coverage of political actors and media conduct, the conditions under which journalists operate during elections remain unsafe.

Media freedom is often one of the biggest casualties during the election season.

It is unfortunate that during the March by-elections, all political parties that convened rallies and political gatherings were culpable of harassing journalists while on duty.

There were also disturbing remarks attributed to senior politicians threatening journalists or suggesting the barring of certain sections of the media.

This certainly needs to be addressed and there has to be commitment by all political actors guaranteeing the safety of journalists.

Even when the coverage is unfavourable and story angling unfair, harassing or banning journalists is unconstitutional.

Besides there are professional remedies available to those aggrieved by the media.

There are mechanisms that can be invoked in promoting accountability.

By organising themselves and professionally associating within the self-regulatory council, journalists and the media are committing to professionalism and to being held accountable for what they would have published or broadcast.

It is the powerful elite’s appetite to further weaken the media as the fourth estate that any attempt to professionalise the sector and hold journalists accountable is being resisted.

In addition, it is the reason why the calls to strengthen the self-regulatory body is a difficult proposition in some quarters.

The status quo has been serving certain interests. There is method to the madness.

Zimbabweans, however, have a greater obligation to resist this capture and defend journalism.

The perpetuation of partisan journalism in the March 26 elections should provide impetus to media stakeholders in Zimbabwe with solidarity from the region and beyond to sustain momentum around advocacy for media reform.

  • Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner currently heading the secretariat of a network of nine media professional associations and support organizations, the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ).  He can be contacted on +263772 501 557 or [email protected].  This article was first published in The Accent newsletter, a MAZ initiative accessible on