In Zimbabwe, a struggling media is a target for capture
With elections looming, private media, once staunch critics of the ruling party, are increasingly open to elite persuasion.
Harare, Zimbabwe – A recent exposé, alleging that Wisdom Mdzungairi, the immediate former editor-in-chief at NewsDay, the leading private daily owned by Trevor Ncube’s Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), was on the government’s payroll, has stunned the local media fraternity.
Outed on social media by presidential spokesman, George Charamba, Mdzungairi is said to have been summoned by his employer to clarify the allegations. Instead, he reportedly elected to resign. His ignominious departure from one of the most influential editorial positions in the country, exposes the precarious state Zimbabwe’s media finds itself. With many media houses in financial distress, this could further expose the profession to manipulation by politicians. Speaking to Carte Blanche in 2020, Njabulo Ncube, of the National Editors Forum revealed that some journalists were earning as little as US$50 per month, barely enough for transport.
It turns out that Mdzungairi, who had built a reputation as a fierce critic of both the Mugabe and Mnangagwa governments, was moonlighting as the deputy communications director in the Ministry of Local Government and Public Works. His decision to take up secretly a very public position may have been motivated by financial difficulties. By the time of his resignation from AMH in January, staff had not been paid their December salaries.
Mdzungairi began his journalism at the state-owned Herald in the mid-2000s, rising to the position of news editor. In 2010, he clashed with top management, accused of hijacking a reporter’s trip to Zambia and keeping a company pool car. He joined the AMH stable soon after. In 2017, Mdzungairi was arrested with two other AMH staff members, for insulting the president, after the paper published a story, citing well-informed sources, that then President Robert Mugabe had flown to Singapore not for a routine medical check-up as had been officially stated, but because he had prostate cancer. More recently, Mdzungairi, alongside senior reporter, Desmond Chingarande, was arrested in August 2022 for allegedly publishing false information under the government’s new cybercrimes law.
His exit coincided with a damaging Central Intelligence Organisation leak about state infiltration in the local media. The leaked report raised disturbing questions about how far the Mnangagwa regime has penetrated both the newsroom and the boardroom at AMH and elsewhere.
Cases of ‘brown envelopes’ or petty payoffs usually made by politicians to reporters to water down or kill stories, have long been rife in the local media, further compromising the quality of editorial output. A notorious case is the 2008 saga of former Zimbabwe Independent senior reporter, Augustine Mukaro, fired for allegedly collaborating with security agents to leak information to the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO.)
“Within our societies, issues of media capture require investing in investigative journalism. Because they are now taking complex, dangerous forms, you can’t see them by just scraping the surface,” says MISA Zimbabwe National Director, Tabani Moyo. “Without a robust business model, media is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of capture, hence the need to fireproof it.”
‘Journalists and the profession held hostage’
Lazarus Sauti, a media and communications researcher believes that journalists like Mdzungairi are hostages in the complex media capture matrix: “Journalists and the profession at large are the most affected in the case of media capture. They are used as ‘tools’ by political and commercial actors in their fight to acquire, maintain and consolidate power in the country. Ethics are thrown through the window and narrow views of the elites are propagated in the media.”
Founded in 1999 by renowned business journalist, Trevor Ncube, Alpha Media Holdings became the premier private media group after the demise of Geoffrey Nyarota’s Daily News.
Zimbabwe has 11 government-owned newspapers, 14 private newspapers and eight provincial ones. With titles including Zimbabwe Independent, The Standard and Weekly Digest, alongside its flagship Newsday, the AMH is arguably Zimbabwe’s most successful independent media group. A fierce Mugabe critic, Ncube emigrated to South Africa in the early 2000s after he acquired the Mail & Guardian.
Selling off his stake in the M&A in 2017, Ncube embraced Mnangagwa’s rise to the presidency, becoming a member of the Mnangagwa’s Presidential Advisory Council. His unsuccessful bid to secure a broadcasting license cooled off the relationship and left the AMH financially vulnerable.
Gerald Mlotshwa, a lawyer and the president’s son-in-law, recently acquired a 39 percent stake in AMH, effectively opening the media house to state capture. The takeover, while likely ensuring the survival of the media stable, is a Faustian bargain.
“Gerald Mlotshwa recently took a 39 per cent stake in Alpha Media Holdings. This is also a clear indication that the private media in Zimbabwe is now captured by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s family members or cronies,” Sauti said. “Mlotshwa, through his Titan Law firm, was sponsoring In Conversation with Trevor,” says Sauti, referring to Ncube’s popular Youtube podcast. The sponsorship deal was recently cancelled, we now hear.
According to the media, Mlotshwa took over a stake previously owned by the New York-based Media Development Investment Fund’s 39 percent, however, the ownership structure remains secret.
“The political economy of the state-owned and controlled media in Zimbabwe shows that media capture is deeply rooted in the country. The Herald and state television, for instance, are used by the Zanu PF leaders and sympathisers to propagate their hegemonic and ideological narratives. These platforms act as political campaign posters for Zanu PF. They always push the narrow agendas of Zanu PF,” says Sauti.
“The same can be said of privately-owned media,” he continues. “They are associated with opposition political figures and this is another form of media capture. The licensing of six TV stations by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) also shows the length and breadth of media capture in Zimbabwe. Zanu PF ‘cousins’ were given TV licenses where genuine players were sidelined.”
The issue of media ownership and the relationship between the state and private media has always been acrimonious, with the state labelling it as ‘agents of imperialism’, leading to the bombing of the Daily News, seen as a significant threat to ZANU-PF two decades ago, in 2001.
As the country approaches elections, media capture, Sauti believes could be also fuelling political battles by silencing opposition political members, who are denied access to state media to air their political agendas. “We see that the media is now used to fight political battles between opponents. It is also used to silence, through ‘othering’, some people in the country. The capture of both public and private media is therefore fueling conflict in the country.”
Can media capture be stopped?
“The burden of media capture is even higher today in the age of information disorder and misinformation. What is key is for investigative journalism to take root and where there is suspicion of media capture, to protect the public interest.”
A 2021 report by Good Governance Africa (GGA), the rise of social media and citizen journalism has made it difficult for the government to control the national narrative.
“There has also been an increase in citizen journalism and disaggregated social media campaigns that make it increasingly difficult for the government to control the national narrative as it once did,” the GGA report said.
A GeoPoll survey looking at the print readership in Zimbabwe said respondents preferred using the online copies compared to the physical hard copies. Currently, NewsDay accounts for over 50 percent of the 3,140 million audience base on digital platforms in the country, while print editions figures are dropping.
There were 4.65 million internet users in Zimbabwe in January 2022. Zimbabwe’s internet penetration rate stood at 30.6 percent of the total population at the start of 2022, while there were 1.55 million social media users in January 2022. Traditionally, AMH publications have maintained a strong digital presence. The NewsDay has 651,000 followers on Twitter, over 800 000 on Facebook, far ahead of all media houses in Zimbabwe.