by Arthur Chatora
The unfolding developments within Zanu PF and government have continued to highlight perceived shortcomings of the media, both state and private, pointing to a deeply polarised society and industry. There have been accusations and counter accusations by various actors over the conduct of journalists and the agenda of media organizations in the events leading to the sacking of the country’s Vice President Dr Joice Mujuru and a number of cabinet ministers including former Zanu PF Secretary for Administration and minister for Presidential Affairs Didymus Mutasa. What these arguments and accusations bring are contestations over power and the media space which have implications on the practice of journalism and citizens’ inalienable rights to information and freedom.
In her nationwide “meet the people” rallies, the First Lady Dr Grace Mugabe made scathing attacks on the private media, specifically the Daily News, accusing its journalists of gross ethical misconduct. The accusations seemingly put the private media on a collision course with Zanu PF, culminating in journalists from the Daily News and Zimbabwe Mail being barred from covering President Robert Mugabe’s briefing in the run-up to the party’s sixth elective congress last year. While there might not be a causal link between the First Lady’s reprimand and the exclusion of private journalists from this event, it highlights the polarised and challenging political and professional context within which media practitioners operate. Interestingly, journalists from The Herald, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), Star FM and ZiFm were allowed to cover the briefing.
Following the First Lady’s vituperative remarks, civic groups such as MISA-Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum (ZINEF) issued statements criticising the attacks and threats against the media. The organisations noted that all citizens (including public representatives) have the right to call-out journalists if and when they fail to adhere to ethical standards. However, in such cases, correct channels should be followed instead of journalists getting threatened or barred from events of public interest.
Such channels would include seeking recourse from the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) for arbitration. It is not surprising that journalists from the independent media are periodically sidelined from certain events, usually without reasonable justification, in itself an attack on citizens’ right to access information. As such, the media can only fulfil its fourth estate role, providing news and information which shapes public opinion and stimulates critical dialogue when they are treated as professionals.
To illustrate the worrying state of affairs, it is worth looking at Reporters Without Borders Index published annually which measures the level of freedom of information. Zimbabwe has continued to perform dismally and scored lowly on the 2014 index. The index measures the transparency of the institutions and procedures that affect the production of news, analyses the environment in which journalists work. It also measures the degree to which the media are able to function independently of the authorities. The country was ranked 135 out of 180 countries. It reflects the degree of freedom that journalists enjoy and highlight the prevailing challenges which have an impact on news gathering, production and professional ethics.
Journalism ethics and codes of practice have become a topical issue of late. Information, Media and Broadcasting Services minister Prof Jonathan Moyo recently refuted a statement he allegedly made at a ZINEF Annual General Meeting on “destroying” Zanu PF from within arguing that had been quoted out of context by “uneducated media minds”, putting on record that he called for intra-party reformation.
However it is imperative to point out Professor Moyo’s contribution in this unfortunate state of affairs. First it is not easy to obtain any sort of information in this country owing to restrictive access to information legislation and journalists are forced to work with the very little information they get especially from government departments and institutions.
It is hardly the fault of journalists that they have to learn their trade in undercapitalized institutions offering substandard training. This exacerbated by the highly controlled environment they have to work in where editorial independence hardly exists.
This indeed highlights the need for journalists to adhere to the highest ethical codes to provide fair and accurate news coverage. At the same event, the Zinef chairman, Brian Mangwende acknowledged professional shortcomings and said, the industry needs “holistic efforts toward further professionalising journalism and further democratising the media environment in Zimbabwe”.
At the same event Moyo made an interesting remark on media ownership and journalism ethical standards, one which indeed ignited debate within the mainstream media and social media circles. Seen as an attack on the Zimbabwe Mail owner, Transport minister Obert Mpofu, Moyo said, “let newspapers be owned by business people who are ethical; I get surprised by politicians who own newspapers and tell editors and reporters what to write propping up their political life.” Following these remarks, Moyo has been accused of speaking with a forked tongue. Moyo is seen to have undue influence over editorial content in state media and the decision he made by appointing Edmund Kudzayi and Mduduzi Mathuthu among others to key editorial positions raised a few eyebrows.
While there is need to acknowledge the ethical shortcomings and call for media practitioners to adhere to the highest ethical standards, there is also need to point out that journalists are not inherently unprofessional or unethical but to some degree their conduct reflects the context within which they practice, the complex power matrix. Some of the perceived shortcomings are symptomatic of bigger problems, social and political polarisation, intolerance rooted in the country’s cultural dynamics and economic challenges facing publishers and journalists among others.
The state media (its print publication and broadcasting) has also been heavily criticised over the lack of balance and fairness in the coverage of the seismic political shakeup within Zanu PF which led to the ouster of party heavyweights. The primordial functions, particularly of public media are to provide balanced, objective and fair coverage, but the functions are rather idealistic as is the case insofar as the state media is concerned owing to the cozy relationship it has with the establishment.
Interestingly, the public media has been throwing punches at their “hostile” independent counterparts for publishing articles which lack “factualness, objectivity, fairness and accuracy”. The vituperative calls followed the recent publication by private media organisations of “Mugabe must go” demonstration held in Lusaka, Zambia, which the state media argued was irresponsible journalism. However, one would expect the public media to walk the talk insofar as balance, objectivity, fairness and other professional ethical tenets are concerned rather than taking a sanctimonious yet theoretical standpoint. For example, there are pervasive and persuasive arguments that the expulsions and suspensions involving senior government and Zanu PF officials have not been adequately and objectively articulated in the public media and the actors in this narrative have had to rely on the independent press. Ironically, the independent media previously had frosty relations with most of these expelled or suspended Zanu PF officials and the two make strange bedfellows indeed. The private media previously seen as the vanguard for the opposition politics, is morphing into the bastion of the protection of free speech insofar as safeguarding divergent voices. This debate over the private media’s agenda in affording its erstwhile “foes” a platform rages on.
As the accusations and counteraccusations continue being thrown by private and state media, name calling each other as “hostile”, “irresponsible”, “lickspittle state media” etc, signifying a deeply divided media landscape and society at large. Consequently, the quality of news reporting is at stake and this undoubtedly will have an impact on our right to access unbiased, accurate, “objective” and fair information.
As the popular Shona adage says, “panorwa nzou huswa ndiho hunotsokodzerwa/parara” when elephants fight, it’s the grass that’s trampled on that suffers. In this case, the grass being the media industry, its professional practices as well as our (citizens) right to balanced and objective information.