Bhora mugedhi

Recently I met a man who had edited a widely-read magazine when people still read magazines. He summed up in a few words something I have felt uneasily not quite clearly for some time.

Print journalism in this country is as good as dead. It’s in intensive care in other countries, for a variety of reasons, some of which are important here. I may be getting old, but I hope I’m not an old fogey who can see no good in anything new.

If we saw more of the sort of good investigative journalism we find at regular intervals on Al Jazeera, I might be able to accept that TV can do that better than newspapers do. Unfortunately, even if you can get the international news channels, real investigative journalism has not just moved from print to the TV screen. Taking time and energy to ask and try to find answers for the real question has always been a dangerous thing to do – no government likes it, for a start. Another reason is the dominance of advertising in both newspapers and TV channels. One thing both an advertiser and a government propagandist want is an impressionable audience. Neither of them likes independent, intelligent thought; it’s bad for their business.

Our situation is worse because we have no independent radio or TV stations. This presents a challenge which the independent press have failed to answer. We know what to expect from government controlled papers, but we hoped for something better from the independent press.

Given ZANU-PF’s inability to admit any rival voices in parliament as long as they hold half the seats plus one, the job of the opposition falls to the press. What is this job?

Firstly, to challenge misgovernance and abuse of power by the government. We do see some of this in the independent papers, but it can distract them from other issues. An intelligent government might make some of the more outrageous proposals we have heard from ZANU-PF, just to keep the opposition busy like a watchdog that is thrown a bone by a burglar to divert it from stopping him. They are being distracted from their second important task.

This is to offer alternative policies, or to promote the kind of debate which will encourage us all to join the debate about policy, We should be debating about what sort of government we want and what policies will help our country to prosper. Instead, the “independent” press churns out the same all-too-predictable stories about every development in ZANU’s internal squabbles. These are not important enough to crowd the big issues out, but what else do we find? Not much but articles paid for by private companies, either about their own company or reviews of the state of their industry which emphasise their own importance. I don’t find either of those much more interesting than the tired old lies of the Herald stable. And face facts; the pornographic fantasies of government-sponsored tabloids do quite quickly become boring.

Policy debate would be a good agenda for any editor worth his salt; what kind of education system do we need? How can we restore the standards of public health we achieved in the 1980s? How can we re-educate our police? Those are just the first three questions that come to my mind. Restoring industry and agriculture, and creating the atmosphere for free debate on these issues, are two more. That last one should come probably first, but some of the answers to that could emerge in the course of trying to debate the others.

But remember debate means presenting competing ideas. We will all have to stop restricting our few “letters to the editor” to letters of support for the editors we agree with. Commend them when they do well, but the first thing they must learn to do is to provide space for a variety of voices on serious practical issues.
Keep your eye on the ball.

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