The recent agreement signed with China for media support is extraordinary, writes the Zimbabwe Independent in an editorial. Rather than look east, the government should be looking internally, and sorting out the massive problems besetting the media.

The Zimbabwe Independent writes in an editorial:

THERE are times when Zimbabwe’s media landscape resembles a scene from Alice Through the Looking Glass. It is surreal. This week it was announced that the Chinese news agency Xinhua would strengthen media relations with Zimbabwe. An agreement was signed to improve cooperation in technology, new media and personnel training between Xinhua and New Ziana.

Media, Information and Publicity minister Webster Shamu thanked China for building capacity in the local media through personnel training and the provision of equipment, adding that Zimbabwe had a lot to learn from the Chinese in media reform and new media.

It would be interesting to know what he had in mind. China has a record of jamming transmissions that it finds unpalatable and passing on this technology to its friends.

It also twists the arms of news networks to drop any news service they may be carrying in return for more general broadcasting access. Rupert Murdoch surrendered on that score when he dropped the BBC after threats from Beijing to his Star Network.

Xinhua’s coverage of world events is less than scintillating. It picks up stories from state news agencies and retails them as “news”. The claim that it had “stuck to the principle of objective, truthful, and fair reporting of events in Zimbabwe” is simply laughable. It reports whatever the government of Zimbabwe wants it to cover, garnering news from the useless New Ziana.

Personnel training is something we can support. If China supplies the personnel we will do the training. Then they can be a little less obsequious in their coverage of their own regime!

Admittedly China Radio International has picked up in recent years and is even occasionally interesting. But it has a long way to go in providing anything nearly critical of Beijing.

Meanwhile, we should ask what minister Shamu was doing improving relations with China’s news agency when he should be sorting out problems on his own doorstep.

ZBC is in desperate need of professional help. It is partisan and unprofessional — and worse still uninteresting and uninformative.

Government newspapers, while rising to the challenge of a wider media scene by producing new titles and boosting existing ones, have yet to open their columns to two thirds of the Government of National Unity. Civil society is also shut out so the state press has become the exclusive instrument of the losing party in last year’s election.

This is an extraordinary distortion of the media’s role in society.

At the same time, the state has sat on applications for licences — print and electronic — thereby denying investment to the country and preventing voters from making an informed choice at the polls.

Some of Zimbabwe’s most talented journalists languish in exile because the minister is not prepared to give them assurances as to their safety if they return.

The GPA called for the safe and unimpeded return of external broadcasters working for what Zanu PF fatuously calls “pirate” radio stations.

Foreign correspondents evicted after 2000 in the state’s paranoid crackdown on the media are unable to report on events here because they are banned from the country, some on spurious security grounds.

Meanwhile we await the announcement of members of the Zimbabwe Media Commission now agreement has been reached on its chairmanship. President Mugabe reportedly blocked the proposed chair, a candidate of outstanding ability who all parties could support, and secured his replacement by somebody seen as more malleable.

Shamu was photographed meeting the vice-president of the visiting Xinhua delegation wearing his party regalia, hardly an auspicious indication of media reform!

A meeting described as encompassing editors from the public and private sectors had been due to take place last week but was postponed at the last minute due to the Zanu PF Congress.

No invitations had in fact been issued to this newspaper or other independent titles ahead of the meeting.

Once the ZMC is constituted, there needs to be a thorough clearing out of the Augean stables at the state press.

It is essential that the public has access to reliable and informative media so the issues confronting the country can be interrogated and resolved by way of agreement.

The current level of “debate” in the opinion columns of the government press is nothing short of disgraceful. It is a rogue’s gallery of reactionaries attempting to block reform.

That goes for interference by politicians and officials whose footprints are everywhere visible in newspapers that should be guided solely by their own editors.

Let’s hope these matters are attended to before we enter the New Year. Zimbabwe has gone for too long as a country with a democratic deficit.  Media reform is needed urgently.

It’s time there was more than one voice heard across the land.

* This editorial first appeared on the Zimbabwe Independent's website on 17 December 2009.