It’s election time again in Zimbabwe and the circus that has become our version of democracy is well and truly under way. Whilst almost everyone I meet and talk to these days is concerned with the parties and candidates, I have another concern.
I have watched with trepidation the media frenzy that has already started to get out of hand with suspicious unverified stories being passed around as fact in the race to break the next big Zim election story. Over the weekend there was the claim that President Mugabe had plotted to kill President Zuma and his foreign policy advisor Lindiwe Zulu in order to scuttle the SADC push for ZANU PF’s adherence to the Global Political Agreement (GPA). A fantastically unbelievable story. The weekend also saw the on again off again opposition grand coalition along with claims and counter-claims of political violence fuelling a social media storm like never seen before in Zimbabwe.
Taking note of the global explosion of “citizen journalism” since Zimbabwe’s last Presidential election in 2008, I wish to focus on the content produced by professional journalists and media houses. These are the public/state-owned media and the private-owned media covering Zimbabwe.
Whilst Zimbabwe is by no measure as precarious, I am reminded of the role the media played in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and ask, who will keep the media honest?
In 1994 Georges Rutaganda was a successful Kigali businessman and DJ on the popular station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). He was also a member of the Interahamwe Militia and used his position to encourage them to exterminate the “Tutsi cockroaches” and “witches”. After being arrested in 1995, in 2000 Rutaganda was sentenced to life imprisonment after being found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and murder. This is the most extreme example of the media as a tool of hatred in recent times and serves as a warning of just how wrong things can go when the media appoints itself the infallible voice of the nation. In his book, The Media and The Rwanda Genocide, Professor Allan Thompson gives a critical and dispassionate account of the Rwandese and international media’s role in the 1994 genocide.
In an article for today’s Guardian UK newspaper entitled “We are all subjective: why journalists should declare who they vote for”, Antony Loewenstein makes the case that journalists should practice the same level of transparency they demand of their subjects if only for the sake of fair and accurate reporting, especially when covering politics. This becomes imperative during an election period such as Zimbabwe is currently in.
I agree with Loewenstien. I have no problem with a journalist taking a side on an issue as long as they are transparent about their position to begin with and can back up what they publish. Very recently I challenged a Zimbabwean journalist on the veracity of a post, he did not take kindly to this and after failing to back up his report resorted to schoolyard insults. I thought of taking this up with the publication but the journalist in question is the managing editor so I doubt I would have found redress down this avenue.
Zimbabwean journalists fall more into the class described by Loewenstein rather than the Rwandese crop of 1994 and I am reminded of former UK Labor leader Mark Latham’s recent comments that the press gallery are “people who want to be players in politics, but lack the integrity and courage to run for elected office in their own name”. This, however, does not excuse the often obvious bias to be found in both private and state-owned media across film, print, radio and cyberspace.
The nation and world at large deserve better than to be taken as unintelligent, unquestioning consumers of all that is published simply because it comes out of an established media house. Just as consumers have the right to return shoddy goods, they have the right to question shoddy reporting.
The role of active citizen journalism is to keep the media honest. In a time where it is normal for journalists to join a candidate on the campaign trail or for candidates to write opinion pieces in popular publications, it falls to the active citizen to say “NOT IN OUR NAME”! The media portray themselves as the guardians of the citizenry but if citizens, as the ultimate custodians of Zimbabwe do not monitor the fourth esate, then who will do this on their behalf? Who, will guard the guards?