Mediating Electoral Violence in a Polarized Society: The Case of Zimbabwe
Elections are generally divisive and marked by conflict, especially in developing societies where democratization has not yet been institutionalized. Such electoral conflicts are represented and circulated by the media, where the competitive struggles for power, the mobilization of people, and the awakening of dormant ethnic identities can play out before the public.
During elections, the media can foster both peace- and wartime journalism practices, a conclusion we reached in our APN project titled “Makers or Breakers of Peace? An Analysis of the Role of the Zimbabwean Press in the Coverage of Political Violence during the 2008 Harmonised Elections.”1
Our qualitative research involved a critical discourse analysis of fifty weekly newspapers in Zimbabwe, consisting of both privately owned and public press, through which we sought to understand press coverage of the violently contested 2008 general elections. We also interviewed journalists and editors from three weekly newspapers—The Sunday Mail, The Financial Gazette, and The Zimbabwe Independent—to examine why they reported the election in the way they did.
Overall, we found that although the media (both public and private) are expected to observe, investigate, and subsequently report news as objectively as possible, these institutions are powerful political and cultural actors, influenced by political and economic forces to take subjective positions. In a polarized environment such as Zimbabwe, they are not neutral arbiters of electoral information and images. Rather, the media carry the most basic characteristics of the journalism of war and violence: their reporting is propaganda oriented, elite oriented, and victory oriented.
For instance, in line with Galtung’s characterization of war journalism as “the task of… war secrets,”2 stories in The Sunday Mail concentrated on exposing the lies and secrets of the opposition political parties while protecting those of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party—in essence, they participated in cover ups of electoral violence. The Sunday Mail also practiced a subtle form of war journalism through acts of omission; that is, by deliberately muting or leaving out the voices of the women, the children, the poor, and the mostly powerless rural folks who were at the receiving end of political violence. Instead, elite voices—for example, those of analysts and party officials—predominated among the news sources cited by both The Sunday Mail and The Zimbabwe Independent.
These two newspapers demonstrated trends of war journalism through acts of commission, as well—that is, the use of hate speech, name-calling, and unvarnished, unverified accusation. Both took blatant positions about who the perpetrators of political violence were, sometimes relying on unidentified sources, and their bias was based on their allegiance to political parties; for example, The Zimbabwe Independent took the side of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The two traded accusations of how supporters of the “other” political party were perpetrating violence on the supporters of “our” party. (Interestingly, The Sunday Mail articles were punctuated with inconsistent admissions and refutations about the occurrence of political violence. This, we argue, was an ideological strategy meant to give an impression of peace when the reality showed the contrary.)
The Sunday Mail and The Zimbabwe Independent also portrayed the competitive struggle between the rival political parties as a zero-sum game between two players, again with a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” The Sunday Mail, for instance, constructed the MDC as “sell-outs” while framing ZANU-PF as “patriots” or “revolutionaries.” Similarly, The Zimbabwe Independent presented ZANU-PF as a party of “thugs” and “barbaric” politicians. Both newspapers contributed to the dehumanization of the “other,” as well as promoting a victory-oriented reporting style.
In short, some of the Zimbabwean press in 2008 acted as both tacitly and overtly willing agents in fanning political violence and perpetuating social and political polarization through acts of omission and commission. Journalists assumed a “positioned” reporting style, feeding on the political fodder of hate speech, name calling, divisive politics, and propaganda which, in our study, we characterize as “war-like journalism.”3
In contrast, we found emerging from The Financial Gazette’s articles and reporting a distinct pattern which, we argue, approximates to the aspirations of peace journalism. Galtung equated peace journalism with giving “a voice to all parties,” stating, “The peace journalist focuses on suffering—maybe particularly on women, the aged and children [to] give voice to the voiceless and name the evil on all sides.”4 The Financial Gazette particularly used the voices of political victims (without name-calling), civil society, women, and youth in its reporting.
The Financial Gazette was, however, in the minority practicing peace journalism during the 2008 elections. In an environment dominated by a hostile political climate, most media circulated conflicting discourses mirroring what Chuma described as a “bifurcated media environment characterised by a genuflecting and ‘patriotic’ state media on the one hand and a vociferously ‘oppositional’ press fighting on the side of the opposition.”5
In view of the aforementioned findings, we recommend a number of practical recommendations which are aimed at arresting the scourge of war-like journalism through foregrounding the basic tenets of peace journalism. Our current research suggests that to reduce political divisiveness and violence in Zimbabwe, both the private and public press must adhere to ethical policies and guidelines, particularly with regard to election and conflict coverage. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) must ensure that those who transgress ethical frameworks on elections coverage are brought to book; the political and economic forces behind the media should depolarize so media polarization can be arrested; and peace reporting must be prioritized, especially during divisive media events like elections. These steps will encourage media organizations to embrace peace journalism as a sine qua non for conflict resolution and peacebuilding.
- The authors wish to sincerely thank the Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network program, and acknowledge that the funds from this grant, made possible by Carnegie Corporation of New York, enabled them to undertake their research in Zimbabwe. ↩
- Galtung, J.,“On the Role of the Media for Worldwide Security and Peace,” in Peace and Communication, edited by Tapio Varis, pp. 249-66. San Jose, Costa Rica: Universidad para la Paz, 1986. ↩
- Ottosen. R., “The war in Afghanistan and peace journalism in practice,” Media, War & Conflict 3, no. 3 (2010): 261-278. ↩
- Galtung, J., “The Task of Peace Journalism,” Ethical Perspectives 7, no. 2 (2000): 162-67. ↩
- Chuma, W., “The State of Journalism Ethics in Zimbabwe,” Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (July 2013), http://archive.kubatana.net/docs/media/vmcz_state_of_media_ethics_zim_130829.pdf, accessed September 30, 2015. ↩