Three weeks after a military intervention ended the 37-year rule of autocratic former President Robert Mugabe, journalists and media experts in Zimbabwe say it is still too early to tell whether the political transition will ultimately herald a more open environment for the press.
Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe was among the world’s most censored countries. The little independent media that existed faced persistent harassment and even minor anti-government protests were met with excessive force.
“By and large, the state of media in Zimbabwe [in recent years] has been deplorable,” Tabani Moyo, acting director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), told IPI in an interview.
Moyo noted that since 2016 his organisation recorded 32 instances in which journalists had been assaulted or harassed while attempting to do their jobs.
The immediate aftermath of the coup ushered in a sudden liberalisation. Reporters with the government-owned daily The Herald, long subject to strict censorship, spoke of a “seismic shift”.
Hope for an improvement in the media freedom situation in Zimbabwe now rests largely with President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice head of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
Alfonce Mbizwo, editor-in-chief of the independent Zimbabwean news website The Source, told IPI that Mnangagwa had not given an indication of being “radical”, in a positive sense, on media freedom. However, he pointed to some encouraging signs, highlighting, for example, that Mnangagwa had greeted the media during a recent meeting with China’s deputy foreign minister.
“We cannot conclude from that that he is going to be very different,” Mbizwo said. “But what we know is that he has promised to respect democratic rights. We hope that will include media freedom and that the government will remove laws that have been used [to suppress] a free media environment.”
Moyo agreed that the commitment of the new government to press freedom could not yet be assessed.
“The key indicator would be the new administration and the cabinet’s pro-reform position, pointing to a future that we want,” he said.
He added: “Only time will tell whether journalists are free to report or whether we are consolidating the hegemonic elite rule which manufactures news by employing the state’s ideological persuasions through the media.”
There are at least several reasons to doubt Mnangagwa’s instincts on human rights, including the right to free expression. Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s right-hand man and confidante for years, and served as head of Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation. He has been accused of playing a role in state-sponsored killings in the 1980s that claimed the lives of an estimated 20,000 people.
In his inauguration speech on Nov. 24, Mnangagwa pledged to improve Zimbabwe’s economic situation and clean up corruption, but did not mention the subject of human rights, much less press freedom.
However, Mbizwo suggested that were good reasons for Mnangagwa, at least initially, to treat the press gently.
“I think the new president wants to turn over a new leaf in terms of how he is portrayed and he is going to need the media [for that],” he said.
Still, as Mbizwo pointed out, there exist plenty of mechanisms for controlling the media in Zimbabwe. These mechanisms include the new Ministry of Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security as well as the country’s so-called “access to information” law, widely viewed as a misnomer as it includes the powerful Media and Information Commission regulatory body.
Mbizwo said that these and other laws “impinge on the rights of journalists and when you talk in terms of media reform it is critical that they be removed or revised”.
Already, Mnangagwa has been under fire for his decision to appoint several former military generals to cabinet posts. Whether Zimbabwe’s new leader will meet the expectations of observers both in and outside the country, particularly when it comes to human rights and democratic reforms, remains to be seen.
At the end of the day, Mbizwo said, the question is simple: “How much change is the president going to allow?”