THE Masvingo High Court has ordered the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and the Zimbabwe Newspapers to exercise impartiality and independence in both their broadcast and editorial content by ensuring that their communications do not show bias in favour of one political party or its candidates against each other.
The landmark judgment delivered this week by Justice Joseph Mafusire found both the ZBC and the Zimpapers, the publishers of The Herald and The Sunday Mail among many others, to be in breach of Section 61 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
“It is hereby declared that the first (ZBC) and second (Zimpapers) respondents have conducted themselves in material breach of section 61 of the constitution in that they have not been impartial and free to determine independently the editorial content of their broadcasts or other communication.
“There is cogent evidence from independent and dispassionate sources of the evident bias of the public media in this country in favour of the Zanu PF party, its leadership, members and supporters. They enjoy a disproportionate amount of coverage in both the electronic and print media,” ruled Mafusire.
The judgment follows an application brought by Veritas just before the July 2018 harmonised elections, through their lawyer Doug Coltart, asking the court for an order directing state media to be objective.
Passing Judgment in Veritas’ favour, Justice Mafurise said the ZBC and Zimpapers were in breach of the constitution “in that they have not afforded fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions.
Justice Mafusire ruled that the country’s Constitution and Parliament were conscious of the need to “safeguard multi-party democracy and combat one-party state governance.
“The respondents (ZBC and Zimpapers) are all critical players in any plebiscite. By the powers reposed and vested in them by law and social contract, they individually or collectively make or break an election. They can make or break a nation. They can foster democracy or stifle it. The applicants (Veritas) are in principle entitled to the relief they seek,” reads the ruling.
As the case dragged on well after the elections, the ZBC argued that “the matter has been overtaken by events” but the judge said the issues being raised broadly addressed the duties of the public media in Zimbabwe at all times, but particularly at election times.
Interestingly, Zimpapers did not to contest the application.
The ZBC also claimed the MDC in particular had not shared its diary of events to enable it to cover such events.
The public broadcaster, which enjoys a TV monopoly, also argued through its lawyers that equitable coverage is not possible in the Zimbabwean context because Zanu PF fielded candidates in every seat, which its rivals failed to do.
“If a political party is registered it becomes entitled to fair and equitable access to the public media,” Mafusire said in the ruling.
The judge cited the case of the Ghanaian political party, the New Patriotic Front vs Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, in which Justice Francois said: “A denial of opportunity for the expression of opposing views, inherent in a democracy, would amount to moves which may culminate in the creation of a monolithic government which is only one step removed from a one-party government.
He said the ZBC and Zimpapers’ political programmes were “largely positive only in respect of the Zanu PF party, but largely negative in respect of the opposition parties, particularly the MDC Alliance.
“Opinion pieces by guest writers, especially in the print media, disgorge hate and inflammatory language,” reads the ruling.
The bias was noted by several local and international election observer missions.
Media Monitors said Zanu PF had an 87 percent slice of the political coverage on ZBC, and 63 percent in Zimpapers publications including The Herald, The Chronicle and the Sunday Mail.
“Among other things, the analysis by Media Monitors is quite scientific. They compared like with like. It has balance. It is objective. On the other hand, the ZBC’s Annexure J is largely meaningless. It conceals more than it reveals. It does not compare anything with anything,” the ruling reads.