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As Zimbabwe vote nears, state media drown out others

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace greet party supporters on their arrival at a campaign rally in Chitungiwiza, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday. (AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

When Star-FM launched on June 25, 2012, it was the first time in 30 years that Zimbabweans, who have known no other radio besides the state-controlled Radio Zimbabwe, had the chance to call in to a radio station to express their views. 

"For the first time in my life I've heard statements on radio attacking President Mugabe. I've never heard that before," media consultant Rashweat Mukundu said of the station.

On July 31, Zimbabweans will go to the polls in a "vastly improved" media environment compared to previous years, Mukundu says. "Journalists are free to travel to any part of Zimbabwe to cover a story and no one is in police custody," he told me on the phone from Harare.

Still, the majority of Zimbabweans lack access to plural, independent sources of news, and legal and physical threats to journalists impede their ability to report freely. Independent and international media have questioned the country's readiness to hold an organized election, but the majority of citizens are dependent on strictly controlled state media to provide information.

The licensing of talk radio Star-FM suggests only a cautious and carefully controlled liberalization of the airwaves. Star-FM is owned by the Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Zimpapers), a government company, and at present can be heard only in Zimbabwe's two major cities, Harare and Bulawayo. While it hosts hotly contested debates between the country's two major political parties--Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvanigrai --it reaches a minority of English-speaking, urban dwellers. The state-run Radio Zimbabwe broadcasts nationwide in both English and vernacular and is the primary source of news for the vast majority of citizens. A box on the front page of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation website features "President R.G. Mugabe quotes."

By far the most critical voices are stations located beyond Zimbabwe's borders. SW Radio Africa bills itself as the "independent voice of Zimbabwe," but is located in the United Kingdom, while Studio 7 is a division of the Voice of America. Both stations broadcast on short wave and depend on listeners having access to short-wave receivers, which are expensive and not easily available. Efforts to distribute free solar-powered short-wave radios were crushed by Zimbabwean authorities earlier this year.

In the print arena, independent titles such as Newsday, the Financial Gazette and the Zimbabwe Independent provide more even-handed coverage of the news, but they are written in English, sold mostly in urban areas, and at a cover price of US$2 are too expensive for most citizens. The government mouthpiece The Herald is available countrywide for $1. 

Mukundu says political parties still have low tolerance for journalists, as evidenced by the language party leaders use when referring to the media. "They're not used to being under scrutiny," Mukundu said of political candidates. "If state media attend an [opposition] MDC rally and if independent journalists attend a ZANU-PF rally--the hooligans from either side will chase them away."

Assaults on journalists are still common: CPJ documented four cases in June in which reporters were attacked apparently in connection with their coverage of the country's two major political parties.

In response to threats against journalists, the Zimbabwean Union of Journalists' secretary-general, Forster Dongozi, said this year that the union would approach political parties to demand an end to the intimidation of journalists by "media terrorists" who create a "climate of fear" in which the media must operate.

Andy Moyse, project coordinator at the independent Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ), agrees that there is "significant freedom" among some of the private media, but he told CPJ that a lack of reform means that journalists are still subject to laws that threaten them with jail for undermining state security or the military or insulting the president. "So if you report on corruption, you could be deemed to be undermining the authority of the state," Moyse said. "There is self-censorship--people don't investigate or comment as they should."

Critical for a credible election in Zimbabwe is the registration of voters and the creation of an accurate voters' roll--a process that has been dogged with problems. According to media reports, some two million Zimbabweans under the age of 30 are unregistered. The Research and Advocacy Unit, an independent non-government organization, found that the voters' roll included a million people who are either dead or have left the country, and in 78 constituencies out of 210 there were more registered voters than adult residents. 

The inability of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to deliver ballot papers and voting equipment in time to allow special voting for police and other eligible officials on July 14 and 15 led the independent, nonprofit Election Resource Centre to call for the elections to be delayed to allow for adequate logistical preparation. According to a South African Press Association and Associated Press report, the current levels of disorganization make it impossible for the country's voters to cast their ballots at 9,600 polling stations on election day. In the words of an editorial in the independent South African Mail & Guardian newspaper: "Given that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission was unable to organize a smooth vote for just 80,000 over two days, how can it be expected to handle six million voters in one day come July 31?"

Analysis of preparations for the election has not found its way into Zimbabwe's dominant, state-controlled media. On June 28, the MMPZ criticized the "sunshine journalism" of the state-controlled media for its "superficial and uninformative coverage" of mobile voter registration efforts. And according to its recent Election Watch report, the government-aligned media ignores many of the human rights violations reported by private news outlets. But there is no mechanism to compel powerful media institutions like the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation to give better coverage or equal coverage to all parties, Mukundu says.

"Media is important for this process," he says. "They have a role in providing technical information that you need to hear from government and the Electoral Commission -- information about polling stations for example. You can't get this from your friends. It's a challenge for citizens to get information about the elections."

[Reporting from Cape Town]

UPDATE: The designation of Rashweat Mukundu in the second paragraph has been modified.

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