Why Zimbabwe needs a collaborative news ecosystem for local journalism
Working together is the way forward to help community media thrive
This is the second installment in a two-part series. Read part one here.
Building a vibrant local news ecosystem in Zimbabwe’s battered and complex journalism landscape isn’t easy. Legacy news organizations struggle to meet community information needs as news deserts continue to expand in marginalized communities.
This month, nearly four decades after Zimbabwe attained independence from British rule, government authorities finally announced a regulatory framework for community broadcasting, a development that could alter the country’s local journalism in many ways.
Zimbabwe’s media, ranked 127 out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, is bedeviled by repressive laws, government control, nationalized news and a serious lack of diversity.
These challenges have thrown the country’s local journalism into a mess, characterized by polarization of the mainstream legacy media and expanding news deserts in small towns and rural areas. Now, the announcement of the new community broadcasting framework presents a more promising future for media, but we need to proceed with caution.
As a civic journalist, and a community media activist, I received the news with mixed feelings. I was particularly excited because for several years I was part of a combined effort, led by the Zimbabwe Association for Community Radio Stations, to lobby the government to open up the airwaves to new players. This is a substantial milestone in the wake of the state’s monopoly over local media.
But, the new regulations do not instill much confidence in the future of the country’s local media. The framework, the first positive media reform introduced by the current administration, contains many gray areas that the government could use to interfere with the independence of community broadcasting.
The regulations are overly prescriptive, proving that the government will not easily let go of its grip on media control. And the framework contains several pieces of legislation that could stifle efforts to build independent community-driven media organizations. But what I find especially problematic is that the framework prescribes the composition of communities that could apply for broadcasting licenses.
This is regressive, as it could lead to the creation of exclusive radio stations that serve sectarian interests instead of broader community needs. A community radio station should reflect the diversity of members of the community, including those who do not belong to groups prescribed by the government.
In addition, this framework imposes the inclusion of government agencies, such as the police, as part of community radio’s governing body. While government-affiliated bodies could help build a healthy local news ecosystem, these agencies might interfere with the independence of community news organizations to serve government interests.
While media players were still busy debating the sustainability of community news organizations and community radio stations, in particular, the country’s permanent secretary for media and information, Nick Mangwana, announced via state media, that the government will fund community radio stations. The condition: Community radio stations must not dabble in politics.
Government’s prescriptive function of media takes away community radio’s role as a convening space for civic engagement. Instead, community radio stations should drive the public conversation, including around political issues. Community radio stations, just like other local news organizations, are basically little machines that help build a vibrant civil society. If their voices are muzzled, civic life declines and democracy dies.
If government authorities (mis)use their executive powers to prohibit citizens from using their community radio station to ask how their Assembly member (mis)used the Constituency Development Fund, or how their Rural District Council’s flawed tender policy is swindling the community out of millions of dollars — then, how will radio help the community meet its development goals, a mission central to its existence?
As various community media initiatives start responding to a recent application call for broadcasting licenses, government authorities must embrace basic functions of community radio if they are genuine about opening up the airwaves, shut for nearly four decades, to independent players. This includes supporting the establishment of vibrant yet fiercely independent community radio stations, especially in traditionally news desert communities in dark media corners of the country.
Building an ecosystem for local journalism is imperative for survival
In my previous post, part one of this installment, I opined that quality journalism — mission-driven journalism at the heart of community service — needs a functioning ecosystem for local news. In Zimbabwe, where the media has been repressed for several decades, building an ecosystem for local news is a herculean yet important part of eliminating the news deserts throughout much of the country.
As part of my year-long John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellowship research on different models of sustainable hyperlocal journalism, I’ve been exploring ways through which I could help local journalism in Zimbabwe thrive and become more sustainable.
In their 2012 report on “Post-Industrial Journalism,” Chris Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky argued “there is no such thing as the news industry anymore.” The news industry has now been replaced by a news ecosystem. Like natural ecosystems, this new landscape is made up of many players and many ways to meet the information needs of communities. The ecosystem is strongest when the various pieces work together, interdependently, building on each other’s work.
In Zimbabwe today, the local news ecosystem, although varying from community to community, is generally similar and is characterized by huge gaps in news and information. Legacy news organizations are hamstrung by lack of resources, and are unable to meet community information needs, especially at the hyperlocal level where most citizens have no access to traditional news sources like local newspapers, radio and television.
But thanks to new media technology, most Zimbabwean communities now have access to a growing list of websites, social media groups, and other online and offline platforms, which contribute to the ecosystem of local news and information. There are many non-media contributors to the ecosystem. Local nongovernmental organizations, local governments, and state agencies are beginning to share their information, adding their expertise and voices.
Zimbabwe’s checkered journalism history means there are few sources for local news and information, and even fewer organizations and individuals willing to collaborate to support a network for local journalism. For this reason, The Citizen Bulletin, a hyperlocal news organization which I founded, recently launched a preliminary survey to understand the dynamics of local news in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland region. We plan to begin deliberate work to rejuvenate local news ecosystems.
The Citizen Bulletin will use findings of the survey to reorganize its newsroom, create a new editorial flow, and develop a new content strategy. Some of the findings will help us lead a journalism effort to build symbiotic relationships with communities, government and nongovernmental agencies, traditional institutions and public schools and libraries.
In the first part of this post, I wrote about the new emergence of local media in community broadcasting in Zimbabwe. This presents an exciting opportunity to build local news. Community media organizations, and aspiring ones, need to start collaborating. This is the holy grail for developing resilient news ecosystems.
As I fervently argued in my previous post, by collaborating we can do more together than we can do apart, and we become more efficient. By concentrating on what we each do best, we improve the quality of our work. By sharing generously, news organizations in Zimbabwe can build a more sustainable future for local news.
I am eager to engage, listen and test ideas. If you work at the intersection of journalism and communities, and care about building a sustainable future for local news, let’s talk. I’m reachable by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter on @village_scribe.