Three things occurred in Zimbabwe’s mainstream media environment that are directly related but will help us understand the sector much better. From how it views and values itself, its own understanding of how the public should receive/respect it and how those that own the media view their roles vis-à-vis their profit motive.
The first occurrence was the doubling of the prices of newspapers under the Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) stable. This was in the midst of the phenomenal currency exchange rate wherein the country was undergoing public panic commodity buying and hoarding the same ostensibly to retain some value to their earnings.
The increase in the AMH stable newspaper prices was quite bold in media terms. They were the only media house to immediately do so (I am sure the other major stables shall follow suit at some point). It was an inadvertent statement of self-value and a probable confidence that their readers would understand the decision and still fork out at least two dollars (in bond notes).
Either because their journalistic work is worth every cent/dollar or because their reading public would empathize with them in difficult economic circumstances. Or, which is more likely, the owners of AMH view their entity in strict market terms wherein whatever prices are on the market they need to ensure they recover the costs of their production and retain their profit margins. Whatever their actual reason, it is likely that as a private company they were and are entitled to do so.
It should however have ended there. The new deputy minister of information, publicity and broadcasting services (IPBS) Energy Mutodi however took umbrage at the decision to increase the copy price by AMH. Using Twitter, he ‘instructed’ AMH to revert back to the previous prices for its newspapers. The chairman of AMH, Trevor Ncube responded in the negative and went on to imply that the burning of his newspapers soon after their twitter tirade could possibly be linked to the deputy minister.
The social media fallout between the two was to get slightly more dramatic if not altogether awkward. The two held a meeting at the IPBS offices under the watch of Minister Monica Mutsvangwa. And it is now reported that they have buried the hatchet. Add to this the minister’s statement that Zimbabwe is ‘open for media business’ and we all have an idea why they have done the proverbial burial.
What these dramatic incidents point to is a precarious positioning of the media under Mnangagwa’s government. This is in at least two respects. Firstly that for the government its ‘image’ appears to be everything and the media (private or state owned/controlled) is a key cog in helping do public relations for it. Hence the general outcry and immediate action by the ministry over the spat between the two newfound brothers on twitter. And that in itself may not be a bad thing on the face of it. But it runs the serious risk of bringing the private media closer to the ruling establishment in the name of not only choreographed conviviality but also under the problematic ease of doing business mantra. And this becomes a framework where the public might not quite know what now motivates editorial policies or the actions of media proprietors. That is whether it is the profit motive or an independent and democratic pursuit of the public interest.
Secondly, where we have such a rapport between media owners and government, we need to cautiously examine the overall democratic importance of the media in our country. This rapport as it turns out is predicated on ensuring the licensing of already existent media houses (which were largely print and radio) into what would be considered media oligarchies (Rupert Murdoch and Australia anyone?) across various platforms (television, print, radio and online broadcasting). While at the same time not paying attention to the necessity of diverse media ownership as an important element of greater freedom of expression and access to information in the democratic public interest.
But this appears to be more a moot point given the newfound camaraderie of Mutodi, Ncube and associates. What obtains in reality is the likelihood that the media and its owners may no longer be as keen on free expression in it true public interest role. Instead,for them, profit may in the final analysis, not only be king but a god. It appears that the media and it’s owners cannot surpass the opportunity to be somewhat embedded within the state and its neo-liberal narrative in return for potential favours that come with being controversial but not true to the democratic role of the fourth estate. But then again, who really cares? The standards have been set a bit too low to warrant democratic query. Much to the detriment of free expression and access to information by the many. Not the privileged (and rotating) few.