Empower the messenger

Any debate on how the mass media should conduct itself in the fundamental business of relaying news and information is bound to fail if it neglects the conditions under which the messenger should operate. In other words, it is futile to limit discussion to the message – thinking and acting as though there are no agents to spread the word.

Jonathan Moyo
Jonathan Moyo

So far, the loudest position, coming mainly from Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, is that the Zimbabwean story must be all about promoting national interest. In this regard, the narrative, especially spun out through the mass media, must be anchored by the core values inscribed in the new constitution, among them respect for and acknowledgement of the liberation struggle and the land reform programme, as well as the much-touted and misunderstood concept of “sovereignty”.

I don’t have a problem with this concept of the national interest, even though the core values mentioned under Section 3 of the Constitution look suspiciously Zanu (PF) and were obviously pushed into the supreme law by that party.

Of course, every journalist worth his/her salt would always consider the country and the founding values that define it. However, we should not be tethered to sectarian principles and tenets. The media must be global in its understanding and appreciation of national interest. For instance, there is no point mindlessly praising the land “reform” programme while failing to subject it to critical scrutiny – interrogating multiple farm ownership, poor production, etc. The most fundamental role of the media is that of watchdog. Journalists must not be guilty of turning a blind eye to the injustice and ugly scars of the land issue – just because land redistribution – of itself – is a noble idea.

That, for me, is the way in which the Zimbabwean story must be written. It ought to inform the citizens fully and broaden their perspective so that wrongs are exposed and righted and the ugly is removed. Basically, our story should be an unbiased, undiluted narration of the reality on the ground, with the overall goal of cultivating progress and development. The national interest is much more than just a few so-called founding values.

This is where the issue of the messenger comes in. The story is best told when the messenger is permitted enough freedom to communicate the national interest in its broadest sense. A shackled journalist is a bad messenger because he/she will either not tell the story at all, or will only do so from the point of view of the shackler. I would not want to listen to a messenger who comes to me in leg irons, because he will be too much in pain to give the message, or too dominated by whoever incarcerated him, to the point of communicating only what the jailer wants to be heard.

There is therefore urgent need for Minister Moyo and the government to revisit the conditions under which journalists are operating, to ensure that they are given enough freedom to tell the real story. It is encouraging that last week he pointed out that the days of criminal defamation – used in the past to persecute journalists – are numbered. This is good for the messenger and an important step towards removing the leg irons from journalists.

But a lot more needs to be done. The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, in so far as it embodies stifling statutory regulation of the media, must be revisited. It is a good thing that the new constitution encourages self-regulation through a constructive peer review mechanism as typified by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe – rather than the fear of some Big Brother watching.

Moyo also needs to work to decriminalise journalism in the minds of the population. The polarised politics we have suffered for more than a decade has shaped hostility towards the private media among some sections of the population. Just recently, I took a foreign visitor to Epworth and almost got a beating from residents for taking photos of places of interest.

Zanu (PF) has effectively but undesirably taught militant members of our society that the media is an “illegal” and mischievous agent. There is urgent need for interested stakeholders to disabuse the citizenry of this tendency to view the media as an undesirable element.

Moyo also needs to ensure that journalists have access to information as and when they need it, particularly where government departments are concerned. Currently, it is easier to stew stones than access public information. The new Constitution directs that public bodies, without compromising national security, must avail information to the public, particularly via the media. Without sufficient information, whether some sections will like it or not, the messenger cannot tell the story. – For feedback, please write to [email protected]

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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