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Media let down women in July elections

As the dust settles over the historic July 30 elections, Zimbabweans are scrambling for answers after a poor showing by women presidential candidates across the political divide.

And fingers are pointing to the media, which failed to rise to the occasion when it mattered most.

Out of the record 23 candidates that entered the race for State House, only four were women.

Former Zimbabwe vice-president Joice Mujuru of the People’s Rainbow Coalition, Thokozani Khupe (MDC-T), Violet Mariyacha (United Democratic Movement) and Melbah Dzapasi (#1980 Freedom Movement) stepped to the plate in the hope that one of them would become Zimbabwe’s first female president.

Khupe, whom many expected would take over from the late Morgan Tsvangirai as the leader of the main opposition party, was side-lined by the male leadership of the party.

However, the former trade unionist stood her ground and went into the election as the leader of a faction of the MDC-T while her rival Nelson Chamisa became the torchbearer of another faction calling itself the MDC Alliance – a coalition of seven opposition parties.

When the results were announced on August 2, it did not come as a surprise that the former Makokoba MP with 0.9 percent of the vote was the third placed candidate after Chamisa and the eventual winner President-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa.

It was her determination to defy sexism and chauvinism characterising Zimbabwe’s politics, which saw her prevailing over the forest of male candidates to perch on the third position.

Her number of votes may seem small in comparison to what Chamisa and Mnangagwa got, but it is still a big achievement considering the many obstacles that seemed to stand in the way of female candidates in that election.

Of major concern was the skewed media coverage as most outlets seemed to prefer male candidates running for the presidency, legislature and local government positions.

According to a survey by Media Monitors, female candidates only got 11 percent share of coverage by the media during the election period compared to their male counterparts.

The outcome of the survey released on the eve of the polls showed that women were mostly covered by national commercial radio stations, which accounted for 28 percent of their visibility, followed by the private press (10 percent), ZBC (8 percent), public press (7 percent) and local commercial radio at 2 percent.

The survey established that most programmes that featured female candidates were limited to discussions about women’s participation in politics.

They also discussed challenges faced by women in politics – issues that were not of concern in programmes that featured male politicians.

During the election period that became much polarised the media tended to focus on peripheral issues when it came to women.

On the other hand, men were being asked to react to questions about the economy, foreign policy and military affairs, the Media Monitors survey revealed.

This meant that women’s contributions to society were undermined, a factor that could have contributed to their poor showing, especially in the presidential election race.

Such kind of segmentation of candidates does not only erode the credibility of female candidates, but also limits women to a specific gender type of coverage that is not necessarily appropriate or accurate especially in the context of elections where we should also see their campaign processes and  hear more of their manifestos.

Nonetheless, it is pleasing to note that the tone in coverage of women in the mainstream media improved significantly during the election period as noted in the Media Monitors survey.

The report states that most coverage of women was neutral, which represented 77 percent of the articles and programmes surveyed with 21 percent of them being classified as positive.

Only 2 percent of the coverage was classified as negative. This is against a background where, previously, stereotyping of women was rife in the media.

During election campaigns the media has a mandatory duty to publicise all candidates and their manifestos as widely as possible, regardless of their gender, while seeking to treat them equally and impartially.

It goes without saying that the Zimbabwean media did not live up to expectations in this regard.

In the last three months leading to the presidential, parliamentary and council elections, coverage of political parties in the public media was largely biased towards Zanu PF and unfair to other political parties.

The bias affected women as seen by their low representation on presidential candidates list and the subsequent poor performance.

The media fell short of its duty as under-representation of women, lack of fairness and balance and diversity remained major issues across the print and broadcast mainstream media.

As much as nothing could be done about the spilt milk, local journalists could start with self-introspection before seeking ways of redeeming themselves in the by-elections that might arise in the next five years and ultimately the harmonised elections of 2023.

There are many ways media houses can improve their coverage of women in politics, which include refresher courses for their journalists and deliberate initiatives targeting women.

Zimbabwe expects better from the media and we must begin to see changes in how women are given their right place at the table.

About the author:

Mateline Tsama is Programmes Assistant at Gender and Media Connect.The opinion or views expressed on this platform are those of the contributing Authors or organisation . They do not necessarily reflect the views and policies or the position of Gender and Media Connect.