Al Jazeera Journalism Review

outside image
People queue to cast their votes at a polling station in Harare on Thursday, August 24, 2023. Hours long delays in distributing ballot papers forced the President to extend the general election by a day at dozens of polling stations [Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP]

Why are Zimbabwe’s elections always surrounded by media controversy?

Election season in Zimbabwe has long been shrouded in controversy, with intimidation of opposition activists and journalists, combined with disorganisation at the ballots creating a perfect storm for chaos. This year was no different


Zimbabwe’s elections have long attracted global media attention and the recent August 2023 elections were no different. As has become traditional, the run-up to the election was characterised by the banning of opposition political rallies, harassment of opposition supporters and violence against journalists, igniting extensive media interest as usual.

This year, Emma Zihonye, 24, a photojournalist, was keen to cover the elections for the first time, and says the experience was one of both fear and excitement, beginning with the campaign period right up to election day.

Growing up, Zihonye says she was hooked on the South African soap opera, Scandal, which frequently portrayed journalists. “When I was growing up, I told my family and friends that I wanted to be a journalist, but I was discouraged because people associated journalism with harassment, arrest or even being killed,” she says.   

Despite all that, she enrolled in a journalism degree but has indeed come to appreciate the fear of harassment, bullying or even violence in Zimbabwe towards those journalists who are viewed as a threat if they focus too much on election fraud and violence.

It’s no wonder. In March 2022, a journalist was assaulted while covering a main opposition political rally, while four others were attacked in August that year by ruling party supporters. “At college, we produced a documentary about the harassment of journalists and it really scared me seeing some female journalists traumatised, and narrating how they were physically attacked,” Zihonye says. “At that time, I didn’t want to associate myself with political reporting, or photography, but I ended up doing it because a colleague encouraged me, and I wanted to break new ground.”

Zim elections3
A mother waits at the polling station with her baby. Voters were left frustrated at many locations due to a delay in transporting ballot papers but journalists reporting on the delays say they were prevented from doing their jobs [Emma Zihonye]


The ‘Spartan life’ experience

When media accreditation began for this year’s presidential election, many media outlets, including Voice of America, New York Times and Al Jazeera were all denied. Earlier this year, Al Jazeera aired an investigative series on the Gold Mafia, revealing how some political elites in the country have benefited from underworld lucrative mineral deals which caused controversy in Zimbabwe.

Soon after the President’s warning that election observers should not try to interfere in Zimbabwe’s electoral process, the deportations followed. Chris Moroleng, the Good Governance Africa’s CEO, was the first to be kicked out, followed by Professor Stephen Chan, both regarded as Harare critics.  

“Good Governance Africa's CEO, @ChrisMaroleng, and team faced a shocking deportation from Harare today by the Zimbabwean government. Despite prior permission and support from Zimbabwean officials and SAPES Trust, their research mission was abruptly halted after just two days in the country,” the group stated on twitter

David Khaemba, a Kenyan journalist at the Nation, wrote of a frustrating "Spartan life" experience, after his team’s camera equipment was seized by the tax authorities without any clear explanation, when they arrived several days before election day.

“We arrived at 11am local time, paid the bill at 12:29pm and were technically cleared. However, the team insisted that the equipment will not be released until check-in began at 2pm,” Khaemba wrote for the Nation. “That was when the problem started. Little did we know that we would spend the next 24 hours at the airport.”

The Nation news team’s ordeal continued for some time, with no help in sight. “The airport officials kept on saying they were looking for the equipment, and when we missed the flight, they came back demanding a surcharge for storage for the time we were stranded at the airport.”    

That was not all, according to Khaemba. They were later made to shuffle from one office to the other, given contact numbers which did not work to retrieve their equipment, and then asked to apply for a licence to broadcast. In the end, the crew’s camera equipment was not released until they returned to Kenya.

Zim elections1
Emma Zihonye began photographing frustrated voters at her polling station, where there were delays because of delayed ballot papers [Emma Zihonye]


Scuffles in the polling booth

On election day, like many in urban areas, who were disenfranchised by the choreographed poll delays, Zihonye had planned to cast her vote first and later cover the elections, but all was in vain, due to ballot paper shortages.

“Election day was a nightmare for me. I woke up early and got to my polling station by 6am, hoping to vote and do my coverage, but then the ballot papers never came. It was now a dilemma for me: should I choose to cover the elections elsewhere, or should I just wait for the ballots?”

Stranded at the polling station, her journalist’s intuition kicked in and she began photographing frustrated voters who were waiting in vain for ballot papers to arrive. But what followed was a clear case of suppression, harassment, similar to the soap opera scenes she had watched while growing up.

“While I waited to vote, I started taking pictures, but then an election officer barred me from taking pictures inside the polling station, despite the accreditation which allowed us to do so, except inside the voting booth,” she says. “I was the only journalist at this polling station, so I think they took advantage of that, and also because of my age.”

Another shocking incident captured live by a South African broadcaster, Newzroom Afrika, showed an unidentified man forcibly grabbing the speaker’s speech in full view of the media, during an opposition CCC press briefing in Harare following the polls.

Apart from the negatives, the election coverage had some positives, and for the marginalised communities, again, another first for Zihonye. “The most interesting thing I saw at political rallies was the Sign Language representation at a Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) rally in Marondera, on July 30, 2023. The party members with hearing impairment sat together as a family in front where they could clearly see their interpreter.”

Zim elections2
The Coalition for Change rally in Morondera on July 20, 2023 which journalist Emma Zihonye photographed [Emma Zihonye]


A long history of controversy

The love-hate relationship between Harare and the media simmers back to 2000, when Mugabe, cornered by the emerging Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai resorted to the unleashing of violence against his opponents. He also passed restrictive media laws and closed down media spaces. After each election, the state accused the independent media of harbouring a “regime change agenda” and aiding the opposition.

Eight years later, in 2008, Mugabe retained power at the backdrop of the most controversial election in history, after which the results were withheld for more than a month. Later, a stalemate was proclaimed, leading to a runoff which Mugabe contested alone and was immediately inaugurated.

Interestingly, towards his end, Mugabe, a robust aggressor against the independent media, summoned journalists to listen to him speak about his ousting by the military. At this point, a pale shadow of himself, sunk in a chair, he spoke incoherently about the shock of his removal from office after three decades in power.

This year’s election was almost a replica of previous disputed elections, dogged by allegations of poll rigging and manipulation. First, the opposition was denied access to the voters roll, laws were crafted to suppress opponents, violence was unleashed, campaign rallies were barred, and voter buying and intimidation was rampant.   

Just before the August 2023 plebiscite, Saviour Kasukuwere, a former minister and sacked ruling party functionary, now exiled in South Africa, was controversially stopped by the courts from contesting, a familiar form of lawfare used to neutralise opponents in favour of the ruling party.   

After the Supreme Court judgment, he tweeted: “Disappointed, and we are now considering our next steps and will keep the nation informed. God bless.”

He later tweeted again: “Desperation on steroids! Why is the regime sending ZACC to my family home. What valuation are you carrying out? @edmnangagwa Is it criminal to contest you?” (ZACC stands for the Zimbabwe Anti Corruption Commission).

Zim elections4
Supporters of Zanu PF are photographed by journalist Emma Zihonye who was covering Zimbabwe elections for the first time [Emma Zihonye]


‘Puppet of the West!’

Immediately after the controversial 2008 elections, Thabo Mbeki stepped in to mediate between Mugabe and the opposition MDC. 

Unlike the previous elections, this time the South African Development Community (SADC) observer report was scathing about the handling of elections by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), abandoning its historical comradely endorsement of the polls. In return, the ruling ZANU-PF called Dr Nevers Mumba of the SADC Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM) “a hired gun” and “puppet of the west”. Dr Mumba’s preliminary statement, citing several irregularities, was abruptly cut off midway as it was being aired on the state Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).

Zambian president, Hakainde Hichilema, the Chairperson of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, who had dispatched Dr Mumba to Zimbabwe, was also accused of being a “front of imperialism and the West”, as well as a close ally to the main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. 

“Mnangagwa conducted a coup d’état and removed Mugabe, they are still not satisfied. Till they get their puppet in power they will never be satisfied,” South Africa’s ruling ANC Secretary General Fikile Mbalula told his party supporters in June. “Mnangagwa brought some reforms but they (America) did not want those reforms because they want a man called (Nelson) Chamisa. They want him to be the leader of a new Zimbabwe.”

Amid the harassment and intimidation which persists today, young photojournalist Emma Zihonye remains resolute, and has high hopes for her chosen profession. “I urge journalists covering elections to prioritise accuracy, objectivity, and fairness in your reporting,” she says. “Remain vigilant against bias and strive to uphold journalistic ethics. Journalism is crucial in informing the public and promoting transparency in the electoral process.”


More Articles

Fighting Misinformation and Disinformation to Foster Social Governance in Africa

Experts in Africa are using various digital media tools to raise awareness and combat the increasing usage of misinformation and disinformation to manipulate social governance.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 22 May, 2024
"I Am Still Alive!": The Resilient Voices of Gaza's Journalists

The Israeli occupation has escalated from targeting journalists to intimidating and killing their families. Hisham Zaqqout, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Gaza talks about his experience covering the war and the delicate balance between family obligations and professional duty.

Hisham Zakkout Published on: 15 May, 2024
Under Fire: The Perilous Reality for Journalists in Gaza's War Zone

Journalists lack safety equipment and legal protection, highlighting the challenges faced by journalists in Gaza. While Israel denies responsibility for targeting journalists, the lack of international intervention leaves journalists in Gaza exposed to daily danger.

Linda Shalash
Linda Shalash Published on: 9 May, 2024
Elections and Misinformation – India Case Study

Realities are hidden behind memes and political satire in the battle for truth in the digital age. Explore how misinformation is influencing political decisions and impacting first-time voters, especially in India's 2024 elections, and how journalists fact-check and address fake news, revealing the true impact of misinformation and AI-generated content.

Safina Nabi Published on: 30 Apr, 2024
Amid Increasing Pressure, Journalists in India Practice More Self-Censorship

In a country where nearly 970 million people are participating in a crucial general election, the state of journalism in India is under scrutiny. Journalists face harassment, self-censorship, and attacks, especially under the current Modi-led government. Mainstream media also practices self-censorship to avoid repercussions. The future of journalism in India appears uncertain, but hope lies in the resilience of independent media outlets.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 25 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Silenced Voices: The Battle for Free Expression Amid India’s Farmer’s Protest

The Indian government's use of legal mechanisms to suppress dissenting voices and news reports raises questions about transparency and freedom of expression. The challenges faced by independent media in India indicate a broader narrative of controlling the narrative and stifling dissenting voices.

Suvrat Arora
Suvrat Arora Published on: 17 Mar, 2024
Targeting Truth: Assault on Female Journalists in Gaza

For female journalists in Palestine, celebrating international women's rights this year must take a backseat, as they continue facing the harsh realities of conflict. March 8th will carry little celebration for them, as they grapple with the severe risks of violence, mass displacement, and the vulnerability of abandonment amidst an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Their focus remains on bearing witness to human suffering and sharing stories of resilience from the frontlines, despite the personal dangers involved in their work.

Fatima Bashir
Fatima Bashir Published on: 14 Mar, 2024
A Woman's Journey Reporting on Pakistan's Thrilling Cholistan Desert Jeep Rally

A Woman's Voice in the Desert: Navigating the Spotlight

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 8 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023