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Reforming the media
Wallace Chuma
May 03, 2007

Weak unions, a state-controlled public media, poorly trained and paid journalists and a Constitution that ignores freedom of the press are just some of the pressing problems facing the profession, writes Wallace Chuma

The following Herald lead caught my attention recently: "MDC faction leader Morgan Tsvangirai lived up to his stooge image by reporting back to Western diplomats soon after his party unleashed an orgy of violence in Harare last weekend."

Not that I was surprised. My encounter with the story simply produced one of those resigned and tired yawns, followed by: "There we go again."

The Herald piece, appalling in its reckless blending of "fact' and opinion, epitomises the rot of current journalism in the country.

The causes are complex, but revolve around two things: an authoritarian media policy regime, and a cowed and partisan journalistic fraternity.

The bifurcation of political life after 2000 gave birth to what has been termed a "media war". You had to read both the private press and the state-controlled, so-called public media to have a fair appreciation of reported events and processes at election time.

Much of the journalism, especially reportage of state activities, came to be characterised by either extreme genuflection on the part of the state media or hardly veiled adversarial reporting by the private media. This polarisation continues.

Admittedly, this is not all there is to Zimbabwe's journalism. Pockets of the private press have since independence provided invaluable spaces for counter-hegemonic expression and mobilisation within civil society. This against many odds; from state repression to a collapsing economy, which renders the media business unsustainable.

The task of critically narrating the current crisis to the world has become the responsibility of the private press.

The problem though is that both the private and state-owned press have, among other professional lapses, adopted Zanu-PF's simplistic characterisation of the crisis in terms of binaries of good versus evil, or patriot versus traitor.

Herein lies the predictability and blandness to which I'm referring. Complex issues become struggles between saints and sinners. Readers are invited to make simple choices between Tsvangirai and Mugabe, between land reforms/invasions and economic progress, between the "international community" and Southern African Development Community, between violence and peace.

Anonymous, "reliable" sources are flaunted in many stories, creating false impressions among readers on key issues. Journalists are in a hurry to capture "history" as it unfolds, detail and nuance come second.

Part of the problem is that media freedom was not considered serious enough to warrant critical discussion during the Lancaster House negotiations that preceded independence.

As a result, the current Constitution in Zimbabwe provides for freedom of expression (which it qualifies heavily), but makes no mention of media freedom. In a post-Mugabe era, media freedom and freedom of information should be explicitly provided for in the Constitution.

This should pave way for the repeal or amendment of a litany of other pieces of legislation which violate both the right to information and media freedom.

Civil society should also put pressure on any new government to create a media policy and regulatory environment which promote the development of mainstream private media, as well as rural and non-profit media.

In addition, state-owned media should be liberated from the clutches of government and transformed into a public media system.

The country also needs competent journalists' unions which command the respect of the membership, the state and big business.

The country has never really had an independent journalists' association or union with teeth. The bigger of the two existing unions, the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), has never really stood up to powerful institutions in defence of professional journalists' rights. The union's lethargy also extended to dealing with its own members. In the absence of a binding code of conduct, the ZUJ has not been able to chastise its members for unethical reporting and unprofessional conduct.

The smaller union, the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe, has been fairly active in campaigning against bad media law. But it has also been ineffective in enforcing ethical and professional practice among its members.

The weaknesses of journalists' unions allowed both the state and powerful fractions of capital and civil society to exploit journalism for narrow hegemonic interests. Thanks to lethargic unionisation, ordinary journalists in Zimbabwe are among the most wretchedly paid professionals in the country. This makes them susceptible to all forms of exploitation.

The country's media profession would be better served by competent, self regulated and independent unions which fully address issues of ethical practice as well as the rights of journalists in society and in the workplace.

Issues of journalism training and media ownership must also constitute key areas for reform. The majority of practising journalists are holders of two-year diplomas from technical training institutions. Many are great writers and reporters, but are arguably less equipped conceptually and theoretically compared to holders of university degrees.

For a long time newsrooms were bulwarks of anti-intellectualism, but this is changing. Many journalists are pursuing further education and this is likely to improve the quality of journalism.

Policymakers after Mugabe will have to address questions of media ownership and structure. Policies should strike a reasonable balance between foreign and local ownership, while also providing for a multi-tier media system serving different interests in society, including minority and marginalised communities.

Broadcasting should be opened to commercial and community ownership, while Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings should be transformed into a public service broadcaster. The South African media reform process provides a possible model for policy reformers.

Media reform can be possible only if there are broader reforms in the nature of society and the state. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen under the present government.

*Wallace Chuma teaches at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town


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