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The role of the media in ensuring Zimbabwe’s survival in a COVID-19 environment

PRESENTATION BY THE PERMANENT SECRETARY OF INFORMATION, PUBLICITY AND BROADCASTING SERVICES, MR N. MANGWANA AT THE ZIMBABWE NATIONAL DEFENCE UNIVERSITY ON 15 NOVEMBER, 2022

Introduction

I am pleased to be part of the panel participating in the Zimbabwe National Defense University Media Day today. 

From the onset, we need to have a full grasp of what it is that we refer to as the media, for without defining it, the richness of this presentation would be lost in meaning. In terms of the Zimbabwe Media Commission act of 2020(Chapter 10:35) media is defined as forms by which information is disseminated by any media service to the general public including the following forms

 (a) the print media; or 

(b) broadcasting, whether by way of radio or television; or 

(c) cable television; or 

(d) the internet or any other electronic means;

The media plays a critical role in society, ranging from informing and shaping public opinion, being a watchdog protecting the public interest and fostering public awareness and understanding on issues of national development and interest.

Survival in the Covid-19 Environment

My introduction above started with the general context of the role of the media and now allow me to move to the specific context as outlined by the presentation topic. The outbreak of Covid 19 in 2019 created 2 crises

The Global health crisis(the pandemic itself)

A crisis of excessive amount of unreliable information which was spreading rapidly using the media as I defined above (infodemic) as defined by the World Health Organisation

So internationally the media acted like a double-edged sword. On one hand helping provide relevant information which was key to mobilizing critical mass support and on the other hand as agents of misinformation and disinformation misleading people with fables about the virus and vaccinations, therefore, being responsible for some avoidable deaths.  To illustrate the point let me start by listing a few of the old wives’ tales. 

That black people would not be affected by Covid 19

That if you have a BGC or Nomba you won’t be affected by COVID-19

That if you take some of the Chinese vaccines you will turn into a china man etcetera.

This was the situation internationally, but in Zimbabwe, things were quite different. The approach was to treat the whole Media Sector as partners in the fight against the pandemic. The National Taskforce had about eight sub-committees. The one which our Ministry was co-chairing with the Ministry Of Health is the Risk Communication and Community Engagement.

Right from the start, both private and public media was roped in as partners with full access to information and the decisions that informed the decisions that were made. This somehow seemed to take to the temptation to sensationalise things and it also brought in responsible reporting. Of course, not everything was on an even keel. When the first Covid -19 victim, Mr. Zororo Makamba succumbed some found it difficult to resist and we ended up with all that hysteria about ventilators. Other than that I would have to applaud the general behaviour of our media.

First and foremost, the media helped in shaping the understanding of the disease, by providing factual scientific information on Covid-19 as guided by the World Health Organization. This information was transmitted across all public and private media with the ethical considerations required in such a crisis. The Zimbabwean media was able, in my considered view, to foster the perspective of responsible journalism that encouraged adherence to the protocols and desisted from deliberate misinformation and disinformation premised on scientifically unproven conspiracy theories or urban legend.

It was quite apparent that the media’s dissemination of Covid-19 information helped greatly to raise awareness, and understanding and restore public trust in Government’s intentions. Broadcasters made all their radios available to the Taskforce to broadcast any pertinent information for free. We could walk into any studio to carry out a broadcast for free and both the studio and airtime would be availed to us. This was in spite of there being very little advertising revenue because of the closure due to the lockdowns of companies which would normally be the source of revenue.

The media faced an insurmountable task given there was little if not zero understanding of the disease when it broke out in 2019. It meant the media had to double up its efforts to write news stories, analyses and features that helped shape public opinion and brought about understanding and acceptance of the country’s National Response Plan. Their actions are the ones that prompted the Ministry to advocate for their designation as an essential service which led to their demystification of the vaccine as well. Because journalists are opinion leaders, opinion drivers as well as influencers. A great number were vaccinated soon after the Vice President and Minister of Health and Childcare was vaccinated. Having taken the vaccine themselves, they could not write fables about it. The media has also done very well to educate people on the availability of vaccines and encourage them to get vaccinated. Now we are at the point where Zimbabwe is in the top five in Africa in terms of vaccine roll-out, thanks to the combined efforts of the Government, the media and the public at large.

Once they had been made part of the subnational Risk Communication subcommittee, the media embraced, and placed greater emphasis on Covid-19 preventative measures, such as social distancing, masking up and sanitization as the first line of prevention as opposed to hospitalization. As a result, Zimbabwe is one of the countries that have not witnessed high cases of people being admitted to hospitals.

The media consistently informed the public on why Zimbabwe was following the Covid-19 preventive guidelines and central to this was:

Prevention

Vaccine roll out

Vaccine availability at centres

Booster shots

The above played a key role in easing the burden of hospitalization of Covid-19 patients and also allowed the Government to ease restrictive measures on movement, business operating hours and gatherings which was taking its toll on the economy and general happiness of the populace.

Ladies and gentlemen our experience with management and control of the Covid-19 pandemic through Government and media efforts has, in the past three years taught us that access to information is a cornerstone of building healthy and knowledgeable societies. 

The information on the Covid-19 pandemic, preventive measures and vaccine roll-out has found its way into the public information spaces as a result of the work of the media. The media has consistently updated the nation on Covid-19 trends, which include the emergence of new variants and statistics on cumulative Covid-19 cases, recoveries and deaths, and progress on the procurement and roll-out of vaccines, as captured in the weekly post-Cabinet briefings. 

This kind of information, ladies and gentlemen, only becomes useful if it is processed and disseminated by the media into the public space. We really want to commend the media for becoming a permanent fixture at our post Cabinet briefings as they take out the information to public spaces. 

Moreover, the media has also modelled good practices and behaviour in the fight against Covid-19. We have seen newscasters and reporters masking up and adhering to prevention protocols and we believe that as role models, that positive behaviour can easily be adopted by the public.

I believe that the media can help contextualize Covid-19 into the broader world of health and healing in Africa in line with our experiences with such diseases as cholera, typhoid, measles and chicken pox which equally demand due diligence whenever they break out.

Role of the Ministry

On our part as a Ministry, we have made sure that the media has access to all pertinent information regarding the Covid-19 pandemic. We noted that Fake News flourished in a climate of information drought. If you leave no gap in your updates of information, you leave very little space for Fake News to occupy. Information, like nature, hates a vacuum. As I said earlier, from the onset of the national lockdowns, we facilitated media personnel to be classified as essential service workers. This enabled them to move about freely gathering the knowledge they required to broadcast on Covid-19 and access the latest developments in the country. The public which was in an emotionally depressing and claustrophobic lockdown always wanted to know what was going on out there and the media obliged saving a lot from insanity and many a marriage.

The Ministry also continued to provide access to journalists at the weekly Taskforce and Post-Cabinet briefings thus enabling them to get first-hand accurate information on the Covid-19 statistics, measures put in place by Government and the health guidelines as they developed over time.

Our Ministry also set up a 24-hour toll-free National Call Centre where citizens across all telephone networks, could call in and enquire on any Covid-19 related issue. Not only enquire, but also get accurate information. This was part of the information dissemination strategy.

Additionally, we have covered much ground in opening up the airwaves for more diverse voices in broadcasting. To date under the Second Republic, we have issued 14 community radio licenses, 10 commercial radio licenses and six TV licenses. It is my sincere hope and expectation that these diversified media will provide the public with multiple sources to access information. All these outlets are available to Government to use in disseminating life-saving information. Section 39 of the Broadcasting Services Act obligates license holders to avail their facilities for communicating during times of declared national emergencies. The same Act obligates license holders to allow Government to use their facilities an hour a week to broadcast its programs. We never needed to invoke these provisions because the Media Houses always made their facilities available to us for use.

Whilst the Second Republics Engagement and Re-engagement Policy speaks to Zimbabwe’s foreign policy priorities, we also interpreted it to be part of our domestic media policy. We, therefore, engaged even those members of the media who are hostile to us and made them a part of the national effort to foster a knowledge-based society and economy towards creating Upper Middle Income Society by 2030. We argue that, the more we open up the media space to allow more diverse voices, the more the public is spoilt for choice in accessing information and the more knowledgeable and ready our society becomes to confront the challenges of daily existence, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. It is my hope that the media will advance and play its role in line with this Vision.

Conclusion

I, therefore, submit that the media played and still plays a key role in any environment. In our case, the media, as frontline workers, was able to effectively communicate to the people of Zimbabwe about Covid-19 and this resulted in new cases and deaths drastically coming down. Whilst we lost family members, colleagues and friends, we incurred nowhere near the 33000 deaths from 13 981 038 deaths in 250 days as predicted by Londons Imperial College. This was due to the astute leadership of our President and strategies adopted by his Government which included embracing the Media and deploying them as partners in the fight against the pandemic and infodemic. 

I want to thank the Government, the media, the Security Sector and everyone for playing their part in limiting Covid-19 devastation or the predicted catastrophe

The role of the media, or of any sector for that matter, should be viewed within the context of the political and economic environment in the country. 

We cannot talk of the role of the media without acknowledging the significant role that the security sector, as represented here by the Defence Forces, played and still play in promoting the media and other sectors to thrive. The work of the media is made a lot easier by the prevailing peace and stability in the country that has allowed citizens, including journalists to execute their duties freely.

I THANK YOU

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