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NGO accuses Zim media of depoliticizing humanitarian stories
US Embassy
April 04, 2013

A Zimbabwean NGO has accused local media of ‘taking the sting out of humanitarian stories’ to protect politicians from public scrutiny. Virginia Muwanigwa, a veteran journalist and director of the Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre (HIFC) said this development has trivialized pertinent issues affecting the general population, and affects the country’s preparedness for humanitarian disasters.

“Most stories do not connect what prominent people say to our everyday life,” said Muwanigwa. She defined humanitarian reporting as stories on issues and situations that threaten the health, safety, security or well being of a community. “When the humanitarian issues are covered, the stories are divorced from the statements of politicians and how they connect to development and affect the general public,” she said, noting that when adequately reported these stories should and could support preparedness of future crises.

During her presentation on the politics of humanitarian reporting in Zimbabwe at a Food for Thought discussion session at the United States Embassy’s Public Affairs Section on Tuesday, Muwanigwa discussed the importance of highlighting ordinary people's issues and ways to improve their situations. “Humanitarian reporting is not seen as important because it starts to challenge the power of prominent people over ordinary people, it also looks at analyzing people’s power to demand certain things and looks at how people can make those in authority accountable.”

HIFC was established in 2009 to address an urgent need to streamline the flow of information from the humanitarian sector to the general public and decision makers. Muwanigwa outlined the experience of her four-year old organization working to encourage journalists to write more stories on humanitarian issues. She said there was inadequate understanding of humanitarian stories in the media and a lack of skills in development reporting; she noted journalists often opt for event-based stories with little to no background.

“A lot of the times when people hear humanitarian reporting, they are thinking of crisis – Muzarabani floods and other natural disasters. But as HIFC we are looking at a continuum, not just crisis… our objective is to see journalists start to talk about certain things that could become crises in the future in a way that enables people to make relevant decisions,” said Muwanigwa.

Muwanigwa, whose experience with media non-governmental organizations spans 19 years, noted that the reason there was a poor understanding of humanitarian issues by the media was because of a general mistrust between NGOs and the media. But this can change, she explained, “Media and NGOs both have a role to play in development and HIFC works to link the media and NGOs facilitating information sharing. NGOs have the primary information that media cannot get, but there has been fear of how that information might be used by the media once provided.”

She stressed the need to encourage humanitarian desks that can report and analyze development issues such as climate change, water and sanitation issues, as well as health.

Since its establishment, HIFC says it has assisted humanitarian non-governmental organizations in developing effective communication strategies to increase the flow of humanitarian information to journalists through consultative stakeholder meetings and knowledge briefs. In addition, HIFC has provided grants to journalists to investigate and write stories coupled with a robust mentoring program designed to transfer skills and sustain reporting on humanitarian issues.

However, the organization regretted not including journalism training institutions at the beginning, a challenge she said they were now addressing by working with the Harare Polytechnic School of Journalism and other journalism training institutions through development of training modules.

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