Press Freedom in Zimbabwe

The Death of Independent Zimbabwean TV?

Robert Mugabe on Zimbabwe TV
Controlling TV images of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe: The closure of Joy TV, Zimbabwe's only privately owned TV station, would mean a complete government monopoly over the medium (TV grab: AFP, June 27, 2000).

Zimbabwe’s only privately owned TV station, Joy TV, recently received notice that it must cease operating by May 31, raising fears that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe may be broadening his crackdown on the nation’s independent media.

Joy TV operates on a frequency leased from the government-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). Jennifer Tanyanyiwa, ZBC’s Chief Executive Officer, said that her company would be canceling Joy TV’s license in compliance with Zimbabwe’s 2001 Broadcasting Act, which prohibits government-licensed broadcasters from leasing their frequencies to other broadcasters.

Rumor has it that Harare’s government-owned Zimbabwe News Agency (Ziana) will be launching a new 24-hour TV news service, called New Ziana, on Joy TV’s frequency. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo has vigorously promoted the project “to tell Zimbabwe’s story to the world” in an effort to counter criticism of Mugabe’s government from the BBC, CNN, Reuters, and other international news agencies.

Journalists and media watchdogs in Zimbabwe have complained that ZBC’s coverage is fatally biased. A March 13 report from Zimbabwe’s Media Monitoring Project (ZMMP) found that of the 402 stories on the Zimbabwean election aired between Dec. 1, 2001, and March 7, 2002, 84 percent favored Mugabe’s campaign. According to ZMMP, only 9 percent of stories on the election even mentioned opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, and then almost always did so only to discredit him.

More recently, Harare’s independent Zimbabwe Standard ran an April 8 piece lambasting ZBC for “sinking deeper into the debris of unprofessionalism, as the rampant recruitment of unqualified staff soars to frightening levels.” On the same day, the pro-opposition Daily News carried an editorial criticizing the station for broadcasting all of Mugabe’s pre-election rallies. “Thank you, ZBC,” the editorial sarcastically remarked, “for showing us what Mugabe says at his rallies and celebration parties, otherwise we would not be aware of his bleeps and blunders.” Two days later, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association suspended ZBC from the organization for one year out of concern for the station’s coverage of the presidential elections. Explaining the decision, a spokesman for the association concluded that “ZBC news and current affairs programs [were] very biased in favor of the ruling ZANU-PF party. News stories were editorialized in favor of the government while the little coverage given to the opposition was negative." ZBC has been a member of the association since 1980.

Joy TV had gained a loyal following among Zimbabweans looking for alternatives to the ZBC’s pro-government editorial slant. Through partnerships with South Africa’s TV-Africa and the BBC, Joy TV was able to present detailed coverage of African and world news.

During the election, Joy TV earned the respect of its viewers and the ire of the government by airing interviews with leaders from the MDC, including Morgan Tsvangirai and Vesta Sithole, wife of the late veteran opposition nationalist leader Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole.

ZBC may also have brought on the government’s ire by airing foreign-produced programs, including BBC broadcasts. The BBC has frequently run afoul of the government for its highly critical reports from the country. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo has threatened to permanently ban BBC reporters from Zimbabwe. On March 18, he told reporters in Bulawayo, “Those BBC people are no better than terrorists, and that is why they do not deserve to be here.”

A May 5 story from the Zimbabwe Standard’s Peter Moyo claimed that Joy TV had first been pressured to drop its BBC reports during the election, but had reached a compromise whereby the BBC’s commentary on Zimbabwean news would be edited out. According to Moyo’s unnamed source within Joy TV, the Ministry of Information and Publicity then expressed concern that the factual information about Zimbabwe reported by the BBC would damage Zimbabwe’s image. On May 1, Joy TV dropped the BBC broadcasts entirely.

The Ministry of Information and Publicity has called on TV and radio broadcasters to devote 75 percent of their airtime to locally produced programs.

Joy TV’s administrative manager, Clement Munetsi, optimistically expects that the station will be in business after the May 31 deadline. He says he expects ZBC will respect its contracts with advertisers and other partners.

On whether the company would apply to the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe for its own license, Munetsi says that would depend on whether the authority would invite tenders for the specific type of license that Joy TV would require. To date, the licensing authority has not invited tenders for the “Open to Free Air” licenses, and has limited its licensing to satellite and cable TV stations.

In the meantime, Joy TV’s fans across Zimbabwe can only hope for the best.