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May 03, 2007
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
pave way for the repeal or amendment of a litany of other pieces
of legislation which violate both the right to information and media
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.
state-owned media should be liberated from the clutches of government
and transformed into a public media system.
also needs competent journalists' unions which command the respect
of the membership, the state and big business.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chuma teaches at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University
of Cape Town
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