Press freedom and media responsibility

Morgan Tsvangirai

Morgan Tsvangirai

Reason Wafawarova On Thursday
The question of Press freedom is as eminent as is that of media responsibility. Both questions attract very easy answers. Any decent modern society must respect the freedom of the Press, and the right of the public to be informed. Secondly, the responsibility of the journalist, or of any decent person,

is to tell the truth.

The traditional meaning of media has been narrowed immensely with the dawn of the Internet age, and the world now has to put up with the disturbing reality where anyone from any background can proclaim to be a publisher.

Journalism, just like intellectual responsibility, comes with three aspects of the moral imperative.

A journalist has to tell the truth as best as one can, must report on things that matter, and must target the right audience. These are aspects of journalism that come with many complex dimensions, including aesthetic ones.

It is not too easy to abide by the responsibility to try and adhere to the truth.

Apart from the recklessness of lousy journalism where excitable reporters report fiction, lies and gossip as fact, there are more serious constraints to the responsibility to tell the truth.

The truth can be glaringly obvious, yet personally costly for the scribe, particularly for those vulnerably exposed to the fangs of power.

Truth that does not conform to power carries with it dire consequences for the messenger, and if we assume that the Sunday Mail did the due diligence fact-check required before publishing the corruption story that implicated unnamed members of the police force, then we could be looking at a classic case of how power can attack an inconvenient truth.

Bludgeoning of truth tellers is not necessarily a preserve of lesser-developed societies still struggling to understand the novelty of democracy.

The predicament of American Edward Snowden makes an easy case study for one to figure out how dire the cost of truth can become even in established democracies.

In totalitarian states the cost can be fatally severe, and there are numerous examples where truth tellers have either been eliminated or forced into exile. Of course not every dissident exile is a victim of telling the truth — some are victims of their own fabrications. We are not referring to these.

There are impediments that sometimes come with pursuing the truth, especially on matters related to the state. Some rogue elements within the corridors of state power will always create the misimpression that reporting on State corruption is tantamount to undermining authority.

In Zimbabwe the quick fix is to label the reporter a regime change agent serving the interests of foreigners.

In politics one has to be careful with what they do with the truth.

If one decides to document their perception of the truth, the way Elton Mangoma did through his letter to Morgan Tsvangirai in April 2014, the repercussions can be unbearable.

Even without State power at his disposal, Tsvangirai still had enough hoodlums to make Mangoma pay for his views.

He was bashed publicly, and the rest is now history.

Ideally the media must be above these devices and the culture where the powerful are protected from inappropriate facts.

It appears the Zimbabwe Republic Police is determined to even out with journalists that fail to confine themselves to reporting outside the spheres of power.

Instead of simply issuing a Press statement disputing or correcting the report implicating unnamed members within its ranks, or simply demanding a retraction of the story, the police authorities decided to hunt down the reporters.

The idea was not to demand verification of the facts around the story, but to use detention as a coercion tool for the disclosure of the sources to the story. It is called vindictive policing.

Nathaniel Manheru confirms this by narrating his encounter with one rogue senior police officer, whom he says was bragging about arbitrary arrests.

We cannot avoid truth about corruption in the name of protecting the reputation of those in power, or even that of political parties.

In the same vein, we cannot avoid the truth about a dysfunctional opposition led by a failed and tired leadership just because we want to protect the legacy of the struggle for democracy.

Any journalist worthy the name must know the difference between blind loyalty and patriotism, as well as that between contumacious support and principle.

It is fair enough to be an uncompromising adherent to the principle of democracy, but such adherence should never be confused with obstinate defence of failed political leadership.

The second aspect of the moral imperative in media responsibility is determining what matters. What matters in our lives are the fundamental values we share collectively as humans — the quest for justice, peace, happiness, dignity and development.

Noam Chomsky writes; “The responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them.”

The responsibility of a competent journalist must be towards the moral expectation of the targeted audience — the public. We cannot allow those in power to reduce newsrooms to extensions of patronage networks where appeasement is carried out with the intent to impress those in power.

But how many writers are out there today dying to impress those in power?

And how many politicians are out there wantonly obsessed with the misguided belief that media personnel at Zimpapers are their subordinates?

While the unmasking of the opprobrious Baba Jukwa character was of significant interest to a part of the Zimbabwean community, the shoddiness of both the media reports and the manner the police handled the whole saga did not even rise to the level of nonsense. As a result we may never come to know who this insolent rogue was, or is.

In our anger or excitement we celebrated mediocrity, elevated sensationalism to levels of investigative journalism, and we had a number of people wrongly implicated in this scandal of the overrated scoundrel. All but two of the implicated were never charged or prosecuted, and the two who were prosecuted were not convicted. The State’s case was simply hollow.

In the polarity of our politics we have often cheered an errant and very irresponsible media, for as long as the roguery is directed at the other side of the political divide.

The media must always come across as a moral agent, not as a monster, and this must define the person and character of every journalist.

When the media willingly or forcibly fronts the cause of powerful elites and politicians, it is morals that take the greatest knock.

Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times recently published fabrications from a poof Kenyan website, not because he was just gullible or stupid enough not to detect the apparent emptiness of the story, but because his ulterior motive against the character of President Mugabe takes an overwhelming precedence over reason.

The New York Times is more than aware of the demise of the opposition MDC in Zimbabwe, but it is not an issue the publication would ever preoccupy itself with. There are more pressing issues to cover when it comes to Zimbabwe, like magnifying any damaging fabrications against the man the Western-sponsored MDC has dismally failed to dislodge from power.

In the late 70s Pol Pot committed so many atrocities on his opponents in Cambodia, and so did General Suharto in East Timor. The Western media reported the crimes against humanity as the epitome of evil, and like has happened to President Mugabe; Pol Pot was portrayed as the equivalent of Adolf Hitler.

There was no blot on the torture endured by the Timorese people, and this was simply because their tormentor Suharto enjoyed support from Western powers at the time.

The Western hypocrisy and double standards continue to manifest with events in Syria where the evil lies in the loathed Assad leadership.

We have for some time pointed out the hypocrisy of the West, but we must of necessity assess our own internal systems within the scope of the local political landscape, and we must carry out an honest appraisal of where we morally stand.

We have our various media taking sides with political parties across the divide, or unashamedly paying a blind eye to the errors of their favoured side, while exaggerating the shortcomings of those they stand opposed to. Elton Mangoma recently explained how they do it at the MDC-T.

It would take a great deal of blind faith for one to miss the glaring partialities within the Zimbabwean media. It is a scam we can no longer stand as a nation.

The audience is the third part of the moral imperative. Naturally, the audience is chosen on the assumption that it deserves to be told the truth, and that is why the media gets obsessed with the phrase “public interest.”

More important than just being told the truth, the public needs to be enlightened in a way that will allow for action on its part — like voting out people causing it distress and suffering.

The whole point behind reporting or commenting on corruption is to enlighten the public so it can do something about it. A good journalist aims to provide his audience a platform for action, hoping the public can through that corrective action relieve itself of its burden, in this case corruption.

As writers we must be responsible opinion makers, not propagandists at the service of irresponsible politicians.

Speaking truth to power is tempting and quite admirable, but when we do that we have an entirely wrong audience. The infantile and self-indulgence of speaking truth to the corrupt politician does not often result in the reforming of the rogues.

Journalism must ensure that those cushioning themselves in the powers of institutional settings are reminded that they are human beings after all. Being a police chief does not place one above the moral radar under which everyone else falls. Rather such an appointment comes with a greater call for one to be an exemplary moral agent.

Any writer worthy the name must be like the good natural teacher who speaks with, and not to his audience. We must view our readers as a community of common concern in which we hope to participate alongside everyone else in constructively building our society.

Our media has no problem applying the moral principle, just that the principle is often selectively applied to official enemies. We have the “treacherous” and “unpatriotic” opposition on the one end and a “red-toothed dictatorship” on the other, just to quote the Zimbabwean media lexicon as applied across the divide.

At one time the EU ambassador to Zimbabwe observed that pro-opposition NGOs had become obsessed with irrational criticism of the ruling ZANU-PF, and he remarked civic groups could as well be “Anti-Governmental Organisations.”

We cannot build a society where the media resorts to a warped value system, where the intellect in the newsroom is to serve power interests: to record in despicable terms the terrible shortcomings of designated enemies, and to conceal or prettify the sins of preferred power centres and their politicians.

Journalists are not and must not be commissars and apparatchiks of political parties or their functionaries. They are moral agents guided by moral principle.

It is just sad to see politicking journalists and columnists.

The answers to the question of media responsibility are not exactly flattering to most of us, and to the milieu in which we live and work. However, these answers must be our guide in media practice.

It is hard to imagine anything more dangerous than a politician with the media at his disposal, or an errant journalist with political impunity on his side.

It is bad enough that politicians often lie for a living, and it becomes something of a catastrophe when the politician acquires the privilege to lie through the media.

Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!!

· REASON WAFAWAROVA is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia.

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