Scribes need to go back to basics

LAST Sunday editors from the country’s mainstream media houses converged at picturesque Troutbeck resort in Nyanga to reflect on patterns of coverage, with particular emphasis on “conflict-sensitive reporting”, mingling with a wide variety of presenters.

Comment by Stewart Chabwinja

The workshop, organised by the Organ for National Healing, Reconciliation and Integration (ONHRI) and stakeholders, tackled issues such as how media can play a positive role in fostering social cohesion and transformation, the role of the media in peace-building for sustainable development, professional ethics and media culpability in the Rwandan genocide.

Dr Leonard Kapungu of the Centre for Peace Initiatives in Africa expressed concern that in Zimbabwe we tend to act only just before elections when the seeds of conflict had been sown and are germinating.

The workshop was timely as it came prior to the constitutional referendum and high-stakes elections next year.

Election season brings anxiety and fear for most Zimbabweans. Since Independence in 1980, national elections have been synonymous with political violence, human rights abuses and bloodshed.

Disputed outcomes have left a trail of bitterness and retribution.

Given all this, naturally the role of the media in mitigating conflict or stoking the fires of conflict should come under scrutiny, as the media is a double-edged sword.

It has the power to influence society and set the agenda and partly determine people’s behavioural patterns for better or worse.

Over the years, media polarisation has become increasingly pronounced mainly during elections, with some embedded journalists throwing ethics out the window and becoming hired guns. The decade preceding 2009 saw Zimbabwean media deeply divided along party political lines and other partisan divides.

Against this backdrop, the need to restore professional and responsible journalism assumes ever greater significance, particularly ahead of elections.

Unsurprisingly, workshop participants were unanimous that journalists must go back to the basics, which means upholding cardinal ethics, including fairness, accuracy, balance, objectivity and the public interest in reporting. Facts and truth must be respected.

There were also calls for journalists to eschew hate language.
As in war situations, truth is usually the first casualty when it comes to elections in Zimbabwe as journalists abandon ethics and become shamelessly partisan and act like activists or political commissars.

Of course, the state-run public media, which has always acted as propaganda mouthpieces of Zanu PF and government, simply dumped ethics previously and became publicity platforms for President Robert Mugabe and his loyalists.

That bearing and approach has not changed up to now although there has been a toning down of their Soviet-style propaganda. However, with elections looming they will revert to their script of hearing, seeing and speaking no evil about Mugabe and Zanu PF.

Soon some state media reporters will be acting as Zanu PF bootlickers again.

The private media has also been part of the problem. Some journalists unashamedly acted as MDC publicity agents. This unprincipled breed of reporters, still holed up in some media houses, have jettisoned ethics and descended into gutter journalism and irresponsible distortions.

So we need as journalists to go back to the basics.

It must be pointed out though responsible reportage must never be mistaken with kowtowing reporting or sunshine journalism. Censorship is no longer an option.

As Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba rightly observed at the workshop, the best secret in this information age is that which is out on your own terms because at least you can manage it!

We must continue to expose abuse of power, corruption and malpractices like vote-buying and ballot-rigging, as well as political violence and intimidation, through solid professional and ethical journalism, not sensational and grossly unscrupulous reportage we continue to witness in our midst.

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