Female Zim human rights defenders assess media coverage

Top female Zimbabwean human rights defenders criticized coverage of women working to promote and defend human rights and challenged media to see themselves as partners in the fight for democracy and eradication of patriarchal stereotypes against women.

From Left: Irene Petras, Beatrice Mtetwa and Natasha Msonza
From Left: Irene Petras, Beatrice Mtetwa and Natasha Msonza

“There is a lot terrible character- assassination of women human rights defenders,” Irene Petras, director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), told participants at a Ladies Night event held at the Quill Press Club in Harare on Thursday. “Even the abuse that they face in their professional work is very gender-specific. There is a lot of verbal abuse and character assassination which specifically goes to the gender issue, in addition to being exposed to much more in terms of violations such as sexual harassment and rape,” she said.

“I had the widest coverage, and at one time had one of the biggest spreads in a local weekly, when I was President of the Law Society of Zimbabwe,” Beatrice Mtetwa, award winning human rights lawyer, weighed in. “It was quite obvious that the whole article wanted to debase me as a female claiming I am lonely…it was so personal that it was incredible,” said Mtetwa who has represented a string of local and foreign media workers in her professional career.

The event, an initiative of the Women Journalism Mentoring Program (WJMP) implemented jointly by the United States Embassy and the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC), is held monthly and aims to increase women’s participation in male dominated public settings.

Petras, Mtetwa and Virginia Muwangiwa of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe participated in a discussion facilitated by Natasha Msonza of the Zimbabwe Women Resource Centre and Network (ZWRCN) on July 12.

“Any media practitioner who is looking at any women human rights defender who is doing their work needs not just to start with what they are doing on a daily basis, but all those challenges that they have to put up with everyday just by virtue of being a woman in the human rights movement,” said Petras.

Petras, who was honored for her work as director of ZLHR, said women human rights defenders are unique in that they “put themselves on the frontline together with their male counterparts, but they are more visible when they put themselves out there. When they do so, they face more hostility than men.” She attributed this to cultural issues, social issues and stereotypes about what women should be doing. She criticized the failure by the media to go deeper when covering issues.

The three panelists were unanimous in calling on the media to be ethical, fair and balanced about the work of women human rights defenders, to contribute to democratization and social economic justice issues. They criticized what they considered superficial coverage of women generally and women working in the field of human rights specifically.

“One of the things that really bugs me about the media in Zimbabwe is that if the Prime Minister (Morgan Tsvangirai) visits Glen View and says that women are clogging the draining system, I get three calls from journalists asking me to comment,” said Muwangiwa, a journalist and gender and women’s rights campaigner.

“They are not going to ask me to comment on an issue of term of office for example, or economic empowerment, so it’s the traditional jobs that are associated with women that we are going to be asked to comment on,” said the mother of two teenage boys. She added, “I also have comments about women’s access to land, indigenization and other issues of national significance.”

Virginia Muwanigwa and Natasha Msonza
Virginia Muwanigwa and Natasha Msonza

“Irene and I probably get the most media mention because of the kind of work that we do, but we never really get covered as human rights defenders by the media,” said Mtetwa. “You find that I am doing a big case for a big politician and yes, my name will be there, quotes of how the case I am doing is going in court, what questions I asked, but if you check out all of that and you ask who this person is, I don’t think anybody knows who that person is.” Mtetwa was quick to point out that another contributing factor could be that most women are media-shy.

Muwanigwa noted that women receive a lot of coverage in the media but “currently a lot of it comes in with a slant — either they are being trivialized or it’s a scandal.”

Petras said the media did not go beyond what they see and hear. “I have noticed that in a lot of the reporting does not go deeper,” said Petras citing examples of coverage of protests by members of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). “I feel that sometimes the treatments that they get which goes on to the broader issues of conditions of detention, the reasons why police particularly target women human rights defenders are not being thoroughly interrogated by the media.”

Previous ‘Ladies Night’ events have featured women in business, politics and journalism, allowing key speakers to interrogate media coverage of women in those sectors.- ZimPAS© July 25 2012.

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