MEDIATING ELECTORAL VIOLENCE IN A POLARISED SOCIETY

By Admire Mare & Stanley Tsarwe
Elections are generally divisive and conflictual especially in developing societies where democratisation has not yet been institutionalised.
Given that elections are accompanied by competitive struggles for power and the mobilisation of people and dormant ethnic identities, the media constitutes an interesting space where electoral conflicts are represented and circulated.
During elections, the media can foster both aspects of peace and war journalism practices as our study which was funded by the African Peace-building Network and the Social Science Research Council of New York shows.
The research, a qualitative study (critical discourse analysis and interviews with journalists) of three weekly newspapers in Zimbabwe (namely The Sunday Mail, The Financial Gazette and The Zimbabwe Independent) reveals that in a polarised environment such as Zimbabwe, the media are not neutral arbiters of electoral information and images.
Our findings confirm the most basic characteristics of war/violence journalism:propaganda oriented, elite oriented and victory oriented. For instance stories in the Sunday Mail concentrated on exposing the lies and secrets of ‘the other’ (i.e. the opposition political parties) while protecting those of the ruling ZANU-PF party; in essence aiding incover-ups of electoral violence.
In terms of the news sources cited by the Sunday Mail and The Zimbabwe Independent, elite voices were given predominance (for example, analysts, and party officials). This means that voices of women and children who are mostly affected by the political violence especially in rural areas were muted and worst, omitted from the violence discourse.
Although the media (both public and private) are expected to observe, investigate and subsequently report news as objectively and as humanly as possible, this study shows that media institutions are powerful political and cultural actors influenced by political and economic forces to take subjectively positions.
In this current research, we analysed 50 weekly newspapers in Zimbabwe consisting of both private owned and public press to identify their patterns of reporting so as to understand their coverage of the violently contested 2008 general elections. We also interviewed journalists and editors from these media houses to examine why they reported the 2008 election in the way they did.
An interesting pattern emerged when we looked at the news articles in all the three newspapers. Firstly, The Sunday Mail and The Zimbabwe Independence both took clear positions which were overtly blatant and sometimes relied on unidentified sources about who the perpetrators of political violence were. The newspapers took biased positions based on their allegiance to political parties – that is, The Zimbabwe Independent took the side of the opposition MDC and The Sunday Mail took the side of ZANU PF. Both newspapers made counter accusations of how supports of the “other” political party are perpetrating violence on the supporters of “our” party. From this pattern, we found that both newspapers displayed trends of war journalism through acts of commission; that is, by clearly committing the insidious sin of using hate speech over others, name-calling, and blatant and unverified accusations of each other.
Another finding was that the competitive struggle between the rival competing political parties; MDC-T and ZANU-PF, was portrayed as zero-sum game between two players with a clear distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The Sunday Mail, for instance constructed the MDC-T as ‘sell-outs’ while silently 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 dehumanisation of the ‘other’ as well as promoted a victory-oriented reporting style.
We demonstrated that the press was both tacitly and overtly willing agents in fanning political violence and perpetuating social and political polarization through acts of omission and commission. In 2008, journalists assumed a “positioned” reporting style feeding on the political fodder of hate speech, name calling, divisive politics and propaganda which, in this study, we characterize as ‘war-like journalism’ (Ottosen 2010; Galtung’s 1998, 1986).
An environment dominated by hostile political climate resulted in media circulating conflicting discourses which tend to mirror the polarised divisive political environment associated with the two major political parties. In this context, the nature of political reporting tends to follow what Chuma (2008) refers to as journalistic regimes—patriotic and oppositional.
This mirrored what Chuma (2013: 18) describes as the “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”.
Secondly, and interestingly, The Sunday Mail news articles where punctuated with inconsistent admission and refutations about the occurrence of political violence. This, we argue, was used as an ideological strategy meant to give a wrong impression of peace when the reality on the ground showed the contrary.
We argue that The Sunday Mail practiced a subtle display of war journalism through acts of omission; that is, by deliberately maintaining a silent attitude towards the suffering of the children, women, the poor, and the mostly powerless rural folks who were at the receiving end of political violence. We argue also that this is in tandem with Galtung’ (1986) definition of war journalism which he characterises as “… the task of war journalism is war secrets”.
Third, and on the other hand, The Financial Gazette was characterized by a distinct pattern which we argue approximates to the aspirations of peace journalism. The Financial Gazette particularly used the voices of political victims (without name-calling), civil society, women and youth. We argue that this resonates with Galtung’ (1986) definition of peace journalism because “…In peace journalism we give a voice to all parties… The peace journalist focuses on suffering — maybe particularly on women, the aged and children — give voice to the voiceless and name the evil on all sides”.
Our current research recommends that both the private and public press must adhere ethical policies and guidelines particularly on election and conflict coverage, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) must ensure that those who transgress ethical frameworks on elections coverage must be brought to book, the political and economic forces behind the media ought to depolarise so that media polarisation can be arrested and peace reporting must be prioritised especially during divisive media events like elections, and will further encourage media organisations to embrace peace journalism as a sine qua non for conflict resolution and peace building.
Acknowledgements
We wish to sincerely thank the Social Science Research Council through the African Peace-building Network for which the authors were APN 2013 fellows. The authors wishes to acknowledge that it was funds from this grant that enabled the authors to undertake this research in Zimbabwe.

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