The possible change in government in Zimbabwe offers an opportunity to rethink that country's state-dominated media landscape, writes Anton Harber in Business Day.  The institutions set up to control journalists can simply be scrapped, but some creative thinking is needed to develop a plan for state-owned broadcasting ane newspapers. They should neither simply be taken over by the new authorities for their own purposes, nor all be privatised. 

Anton Harber writes in Business Day:

A change of government in Zimbabwe provides an opportunity to reshape its media along democratic lines. Last time Zimbabwe went through major political change — independence in 1980 — the colonial media system was simply transferred to the new state and continued to play a partisan role as the new government became increasingly repressive.

Robert Mugabe’s government kept a stranglehold on broadcast media and took over the major newspapers from the then Argus Group of SA. It built up a machinery of media control, forcing the registration of journalists and publications and using this — and more direct repression — to suppress opposition voices.

Private newspapers were given very little space in which to operate in the past decade or so, and most were closed down. The country has had no independent mass-market dailies for the past few years. This in a country with a high literacy rate and strong demand for reading material. The absence of a free media contributed significantly to the delay in bringing democratic change.

That the opposition has been able to win parliament in a situation where they have had almost no media platform, and faced the naked hostility of powerful state media, is a remarkable achievement. On the other hand, this led to a lively media-in-exile, particularly on the internet. Newspapers, radio stations and internet sites proliferated on foreign soil. Much of the opposition communication has also been via SMS, another new technology hard for the state to control. In the words of my colleague, Tawana Kupe: “Zimbabweans have become masters of alternative communication and media strategies as surrogates for mainstream media.”

Now there will be important choices to make to rebuild and secure democracy. The first step will be dismantling the legal and state machinery which controls and contains the media. Most of it, such as the state-appointed Media Council, and the security laws, can simply be done away with.

New institutions, such as an independent broadcasting regulator, will need to be put in place. Such moves should allow for a blossoming of private media.

A MISTAKE, however, would be to privatise state-controlled media. The need for diversity will not be served if such a large and dominant group is simply sold off to a new owner, reproducing the imbalances inherited from the colonial era.

The government could break up the state media group, though they would have to be careful to ensure the bits and pieces remain viable under what will be tough economic conditions for some time at least. They could also try and convert it to a true public service media, relinquishing control over the trust and ensuring it falls into the hands of the great, the good and the independent.

We know from the South African experience that this can be difficult to achieve. It is one thing to create the right policies and structures, but it is another to immunise the structures from the interference of the ruling party and other powerful political and economic interests. This requires trustees and board members who are dedicated to protecting and preserving the media’s independence and prepared to stand up to those who will inevitably try to compromise it.

Some of the world’s greatest newspapers are owned by trusts, such as the Guardian and the Economist, and they have proven to be structures which can allow for quality media that enjoys a greater independence than those in private or listed companies.

I would hope that the new Zimbabwean government goes for a basket of media reforms: opening up the private media sector, privatising some state media, putting the rest in a well insulated public service trust.

A new government should also invest in a broadband network which will give widespread internet access. That will not just empower people, but ensure that it will be much harder for any authority to control information the same way again.

# Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism, Wits University. This column first appeared in Business Day on 30 April 2008.