30 July, 2017 / By Faith Ndlovu, Bulawayo
Two weeks ago, the Zimbabwean media industry celebrated as two of the country’s biggest media players, Zimpapers and AB Communications, launched new media products amidst a harsh economic environment, posing a serious viability challenge to the sector.
Zimpapers unveiled a new publication, the Business Weekly, while AB Communications launched two local commercial stations in Masvingo and Gweru – Hevoi FM and 98.5FM respectively – as the two players continued to expand their footprint across the media landscape.
These developments are cause for optimism. As observed by the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (Zinef) in a congratulatory statement, the launch of these new media products “signposts growth of the media sector” in this unforgiving economy.
The editors’ forum further noted that this was a positive development for media diversity and good for creating opportunities for journalists. This is especially so in light of the increasing number of institutions offering media and journalism training and ballooning enrolment rates vis-à-vis a shrinking media industry — resulting in huge numbers of unemployed media graduates.
So why should this development be an issue of concern?
The continued expansion of already dominant media houses is a double-edged sword. While we celebrate investment, innovation and expansion, the other side of the coin is that the current pattern indicates rising media concentration. This media consolidation leads to a situation whereby ownership progressively resides in fewer and fewer hands.
At the heart of the matter are issues of media pluralism and diversity. Media activist Takura Zhangazha summarised this worrying issue of emerging “media moguls” in Zimbabwe:
“It is those with resources that are not only spreading their wings across differing media platforms (newspaper to radio to television) but are also beginning to have uniform editorial policies that disable media diversity and in the final analysis determine what is ‘news’ in favour of their own political or economic interests”. This is a situation compounded by the fact that individuals/entities recently granted licences for local commercial radio broadcasting are either state controlled or have close links to the state.
An issue of global concern
As reflected at a recent summer school on media capture held in Budapest, Hungary, the rising concentration of media characterised by the expansion of state-controlled and media owned by close associates of the state is a matter of global concern.
Media ownership itself, alongside other factors such as funding, regulation, public media and technology companies were identified as some of the key pillars in enabling a “model of captive, politically instrumentalised news media” (Centre For Media, Data and Society, 2017). These pillars are therefore harnessed to build a media ecosystem conducive for capture.
According to Marius Dragomir, one of the course facilitators, who is also a leading expert on media capture and director of the Centre for Media, Data and Society (at the Central European University which hosted the two-week long course), the most common capture model is regulation and public media first, followed by funding and ownership to silence dissent.
Media capture in this context is seen in the restructuring of the media that results in a hijacked media primarily serving vested interests be they governments, corporates or other special interests rather than public interest.
Some case studies
From the course deliberations and a review of several country case studies in the first-ever collection on media capture around the world compiled by the Centre for International Media Assistance (Cima), it is therefore apparent that this is a growing issue of concern across the globe.
The Cima noted the adverse impact ownership concentration is having on the sustainability of independent media in places like Burma.
Writing in the Cima edition, Jane Mcelhone notes the Burmese independent media’s struggle to compete in a concentrated environment dominated by state controlled media, a military media empire and “crony” media linked to the state.
Mcelhone argues that comparative advantages of the vast network of media linked to the state and under the direct control of the state such as higher print runs and nationwide reach has turned out to be more attractive to advertisers.
This uneven playing field in Burma is crystalised by the recent licensing of five independent content producers in April 2017. By virtue of being digital, their comparatively smaller estimate reach of between two and five million is in stark contrast to the state-controlled, military and pro-government media network “whose monopoly over terrestrial (analog) broadcasting gives them privileged access to an estimated 20-40 million viewers”.
As part of sustainability and survival strategies, Mcelhone highlights how some of these media have become content producers for state controlled media, pro-government broadcasters and the country’s private satellite broadcaster.
The risk being the dependence on government-controlled media for income.
As a result, Media Development Fund Asia director Tessa Piper (cited by Mcelhone) calls attention to “the horrible irony that, after being denied existence for half a century, now that independent media is finally free in theory to flourish, the existence of very-well funded and long-established state and crony-owned media means that, in practice, they face Herculean obstacles to survival”.
This could be true of independent media in any transitioning environment if the current trend of continued expansion of state controlled and government-friendly media both through acquisitions or new establishments continues unchecked, in the process slowly suffocating these media.
The case study of India also demonstrates how in a concentrated media market oligarchs may also subjugate the public interest in pursuit of their other economic, political and other interests.
The case for media sector-specific anti-trust and fair competition rules
Although excessive litigation is not desirable, anti-trust and fair competition laws seek to ensure that there is fair competition between businesses by, for example, enacting rules to control monopolies and curb unfair business practices.
While Zimbabwe has a Competition Act that establishes the Competition and Tariff Commission, which among other responsibilities is mandated to “prevent and control restrictive practices”, I believe that sector-specific fair competition laws have become more and more relevant to the media in Zimbabwe in light of the emerging “media moguls”.
This is because the media is not only a business providing profits for its owners or merely a service industry providing employment and revenue.
The media also serves a political and social cause in the public interest — true plurality and diversity is necessary for citizens to make informed choices based on as wide and competitive variety of sources as possible.
Media companies must have the freedom to expand and innovate but there is need to strike a balance so that bigger players don’t dominate the space in a way that shuts out new entrants or squeezes them out.
This is of course a situation compounded by the growth of digital media and its challenge to the viability of traditional media business models. There is therefore a need for foresight and caution.
As we celebrate the incremental gains within the context of our particular challenges, we should be careful of laying the groundwork for far-reaching media capture that will impact the future.
Faith Ndlovu is a Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe programmes officer