ZIMBABWE – Your Excellency, It is good to see that the First Family, like many other important people in the ruling Zanu PF, is showing a keen interest in the life and business of the media, particularly independent newspapers such as the Daily News.
Indeed, for much of last year, a fired up First Lady not only led from the front Zanu PF’s moves to take out many of the party’s leading lights, she repeatedly confirmed the fact that she reads independent newspapers voraciously — even as it also became very evident that she was not well informed about both the operations and ownership of media houses such as Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, publishers of the Daily News.
In that light, it was good and most impressive to see you recite headline after headline of many of the riveting stories that independent newspapers have churned out over the past few weeks, as you spoke at the luncheon that followed your most interesting opening of Parliament on Tuesday.
Regrettably, and just as the First Lady has tended to do, you chose to blame the messenger for your Zanu PF’s and Zimbabwe’s myriad challenges, rather than reflect properly on the real reasons why and how you, your party and the country are often the recipients of not so flattering press coverage.
More concerning Your Excellency, is that even the ever “patriotic” State media quoted you threatening the private media with unspecified future action — which is ominous for newspapers such as the Daily News, which was forcibly and unjustly shut down by your government in September 2003, for eight long years: all for the crime of telling it like it is, without fear or favour, as our motto goes.
You did not say a word on Zanu PF media, oops I meant to say State media, their role in Zimbabwean politics and society over the past 35 years, and how they have the singular and rare gift of sniffing out enemies of the State out of anyone who disagrees with you, your wife, Zanu PF or your government — no matter how well-meaning.
Nary a word on the country’s fundamental problem — serious governance deficiencies, that have seen Zimbabwe move from being the bread basket of the region in 1980 to a much derided basket case, where Masters’ graduates are desperate street vendors.
And nothing about the First Lady’s egregious lies about the ownership of the Daily News; absolutely nothing about worsening Zanu PF infighting and corruption that has brought Zimbabwe to its knees; and zip about our leadership’s despicable tendency to blame the West, travel restrictions, the opposition and the private media when their legendary incompetence and misrule is highlighted.
Surely, you cannot blame independent media for Zanu PF’s deadly ructions, which resulted in former Vice President Joice Mujuru being purged from the party together with other bigwigs?
It would be equally bizarre if anyone accused these puny media outlets of being the cause of the serious corruption that is devouring the heart of this troubled nation and that is seeing political heavyweights build monstrous and multi-million dollar mansions in Harare’s northern suburbs despite earning relatively low official salaries.
And it would be strange to blame the independent media for Tuesday’s so-called speech mix-up in Parliament which saw you, Your Excellency, being duped into embarrassingly reading the wrong speech!
No wonder, following your surprising Tuesday comments, media lobby group Misa Zimbabwe objected to your speech, saying your threat underlines the dangers that continue to confront the media in the country despite the adoption of a new Constitution guaranteeing media freedom.
“Besides, such blatant threats can potentially trigger extra-legal violation of media freedom by political activists, who in the past have — with impunity — harassed and beaten up media practitioners as well as torched and barred from circulation media products they deemed reflected badly on their political parties and leaders.
“Misa-Zimbabwe therefore calls on the country’s leadership to exercise restraint and desist from issuing such threats, which are not only in conflict with the letter and spirit of the Constitution but inherently border on incitement to media freedom violations,” it said.
Which brings me, Your Excellency, to a critical discussion I have always wanted to bring to you and your lieutenants’ attention — that of patriotism and patriotic media.
Indeed, how should a patriotic media report on issues?
Is a patriotic media one which ignores corruption and incompetence, or one which reports on these scourges?
Does a patriotic media also pretend that the Zimbabwean economy is not dying, or that there is no serious infighting within Zanu PF, when every Zimbabwean stands witness to these obvious realities?
All this is not to say that you, Your Excellency, are not entitled to your views, or that there isn’t a lot to criticise about local journalism. But we need to face up to the real issues confronting our country.
To say the independent media are oppositional, as many senior Zanu PF officials do with the egging of their hangers-on, is as bad as making a sweeping statement such as that all black people are inherently corrupt.
At the heart of this crass mentality is a lack of understanding and respect for journalism. Thus, in our politicians’ twisted minds, if you support or praise Zanu PF, then you are a good and objective journalist. If you dare criticise the party and its leaders, then you are a sell-out serving white or foreign, interests.
It boggles the mind.
Your Excellency, here is the nub of democracy and media freedom: It should mean that you and your Zanu PF colleagues respect the right of newspapers to be even oppositional if they so choose — which Zimbabwean independent newspapers certainly aren’t.
Ironically too, the most problematic areas of our media, in my view, are, and have always been those in which the government has the most influence — ZBC and State newspapers!
Surely this is not rocket science, even when one analyses the coverage of Zanu PF’s factional and succession wars.
In summary, the view that privately-owned newspapers should only publish positive news to demonstrate their patriotism and to supposedly encourage social cohesion and national pride is twisted, to say the least.
Your Excellency, one of journalism’s most important functions is to be a watchdog over those who wield power, no matter how uncomfortable this can sometimes be.
Indeed, journalism is most useful to society and at its most patriotic when it is challenging and probing — not fawning on our rulers.
Our emerging democracy can only get stronger if the opening marketplace of ideas continues to obtain in our beloved country. For, it is out of a healthy contestation of ideas that the best policies can emerge in the country and be implemented for the benefit of all Zimbabweans.
We at the Daily News earnestly believe that we have both a patriotic and national duty to play a central role in this marketplace of ideas. In this endeavour, our duty is to our country — not to individuals, businesses and political parties: which is why we, as a national and patriotic newspaper always “tell it like it is”, unequivocally without fear or favour.
And for your information, Your Excellency, 90 percent of our stories — whether some people may perceive them positively or negatively, are very often given to us by very senior people in Zanu PF, in government and in business; who all assist us in good and patriotic faith!
I hope this is useful as you continue to reflect on our media.