If IMPI report is a predictor of journalism’s future in Zimbabwe, then we’re damned

When I received a digital copy of the Information Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) report on the state of the media in Zimbabwe I itched to read it so much that I binged on it in a single weekend. With every flip of the 666 pages I expected more. Sadly it reads like a 1990s media report released in 2015. It’s sentimental of the good old days of media in Zimbabwe and fails to answer the one fundamental question: How is Zimbabwean journalism making the transition or failing to in the digital age?

It’s a shame that an editor in the caliber of Geoff Nyarota was the lead consultant for IMPI. The report is an anti-thesis of his journalism career. As an editor he was responsible for some of the biggest stories in post-independence Zimbabwe and is mostly known for the Willogate scandal in the late 1980s, a corruption scam, that involved many political bigwigs and some even rumor, the late first lady Sally Mugabe. For a journalist who is widely known for his fearless and investigative powers you would expect thoroughness and depth in a report of this magnitude.

It suffers many things — shallowness, repetition and frankly it’s a much ado about nothing document. It seems the economic subtext in which the report is produced becomes very important. The NGOisation of the many facets of Zimbabwean life cleverly creates opportunities for ‘piggy bank’ projects of this nature. Takura Zhangazha, a media critic, explains, “What is apparent is that the IMPI report is not groundbreaking. The issues it identifies have been known for a while now by media stakeholders.” What then was the goal?

That the report was an initiative of a ‘born again’ Jonathan Moyo, undoubtedly a propaganda genius, who after spending years in the ZANU PF wilderness rebounded as minister of information makes it all the more suspicious. Perhaps by coincidence, the IMPI report as it is, was unmistakably written in the language of its principal sponsor — the government of Zimbabwe. Its objectivity is questionable. But as an exercise of introspection by current media players (most of whom are in the committee) it’s a very revealing document in what it emphasises and what it overlooks.

Many of the media organisations in Zimbabwe may be going out of business or operating under strain because of the really dismal job being done by their executives. No fresh talent means death. In fact, the focus and preoccupations of the drafters of IMPI are reflective of the state of a media leadership out of touch with the reality in which they operate. Also, there is no new money flowing into the local media industry. Self-serving politicians such as Obert Mpofu, Supa Mandiwanzira, Gideon Gono run some of the so-called independent media.

Instead of the report examining the shifts in the media industry — in revenue streams, in jobs, in technology, in content, in consumer behavior, it is a sentimental and overwritten document that ‘cries out loud’ for the glory days. That is unhelpful. That belongs in the memoirs or biographies.

There is no denying that advertising, at least for now, still accounts for roughly two-thirds of revenue, most of which remains tied to legacy forms — TV, radio and print. Audience revenue accounts for very little in total dollars and in shares because media leaders in Zimbabwe haven’t figured how to monetize digital yet. One part of the equation that would have been worth exploring for the IMPI committee is what kind of savings will occur at media houses in the long run by taking on the newer costs of technology development.

The growing influence of technology and new ways of sharing data and information are areas not fully explored. Instead of asking people during the outreach meetings how they access and consume news, oddly IMPI turns to Gelfand Kausiyo whose chapter is a complete dud. It is full of generalisations and vague statements punctuated with phrases like “will become”, “will be,” and “when.” There is no mention of the new generation media companies such as NehandaRadio.com, techZim, Zimbojam.com, 263Chat, 3mob or HerZimbabwe.co.zw or even the many news aggregators such as myZimbabwe.com, Bulawayo24, zimeye.com who have started taking advantage of the opportunities digital presents.

And more so one of the biggest media stories of the last two years, the Baba Jukwa leaks saga, which shined light on yet another area of challenge for local journalism in the digital age of Wikileaks and Edward Snowden is not mentioned in the report at all. So what are the real preoccupations of IMPI?

Indeed, there is much dishonest reporting (or non-reporting) in our political media. The Zimbabwean public rightly regards traditional media as manifestly corrupt and designed for disinformation. This is not surprising. ZANU PF has done a good job of deceiving themselves and the world. And while the report points out the toxicity of a polarised media, it does nothing but affirm the status quo. The Daily News, The Zimbabwean are singled out as divisive yet the state media, especially The Herald, is not called out for what it truly is — a propaganda rag-tag in service of Mugabe and his comrades.

Shocking details are also revealed in the report. Female journalists endure sexual harassment from their colleagues and sometimes from news sources. The decision makers (who are mostly men) in the media deny the existence and prevalence of sexual harassment in the media. The IMPI committee itself was also primarily a boys club.

It is sad that in this day and age our media still does not allow women to craft their own narratives and excludes their voices in a wide-ranging public discourse moderated over the airwaves, in print and online. And yet two years ago, Fungai Machirori, a young journalist and digital native, started HerZimbabwe to address this anomaly. Nowhere in the report does this significant initiative get acknowledged.

It matters that women be part of the conversations conducted through the media. Unequivocally, it matters when 51 percent of the total Zimbabwean population is women. Only when women are equal partners in the multi-layered work of deciding what constitutes a story and how that story might be told can we paint a more textured, accurate picture of the world that we all — male and female — inhabit.

Most Zimbabwean journalists are reported to be earning less than sugarcane cutters and as a result scrounge for survival or resort to the “brown envelope” culture where they are paid to write or kill certain stories. Without providing adequate compensation our journalism will surely remain poorer. It is no longer unusual for many media houses to go for months without paying their journalists.

The fundamental problem is that the IMPI committee missed the real beat of their brief. The business of news is rapidly changing, how does our journalism adapt now? There is no talk in the report about retooling local media businesses for the digital era or the need for diversification of revenue streams. It is imperative that publishers start to seek alternatives to advert revenue in the digital age. If anything the evisceration of advertising-supported-journalism is that more innovation is needed in advertising itself.

Innovation is especially important in the journalism industry, which, having been upended economically in recent years, remains critical to the well-being of any society. To make sure the media sector remains able to fulfill all its vital roles, from entertainment to political accountability, innovation shouldn’t be limited to ways to make and distribute content under a single business model, especially if that dominant business model creates perverse incentives for publishers that can erode the quality and integrity of what they produce. If the IMPI report is a predictor of journalism’s future in Zimbabwe, we should be worried.

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