By Obediah Mazombwe
IN an article in the Sunday Mail of May 9, George Charamba, the secretary in the Department of Information and Publicity in the Office of the President, was highly critical of the private
ly-owned press in Zimbabwe. In reference to this press, he posed the question: “Does Zimbabwe deserve the media it has?”
Information minister Jonathan Moyo answered that question in an article in the Herald of May 17. Moyo, reacting to an article in the Daily News of the previous day, referred to the privately-owned press in Zimbabwe as “…the kind of unprofessional and unethical print journalism Zimbabweans neither need nor deserve….Nobody in the civilised world needs nor deserves this kind of journalism.”
Charamba and Moyo, in talking about the media that Zimbabwe “deserves”, presumably mean media that are most appropriate for, and best serve the needs and interests of Zimbabwe in the information area.
Charamba views the privately-owned media as “implants and tools” of the West, created to further Western interests.
For the two officials, this existence of “tools” and “implants” is the problem with our privately-owned press. For their boss, President Robert Mugabe, it is also the major problem with our national politics. Morgan Tsvangirai and the opposition MDC are not there for themselves, they are tools of the British. According to him the problem Zimbabwe has is not really between the government and the ruling party on the one side, and the people on the other. It is between Zimbabwe and Britain. As far as he is concerned, the majority of Zimbabweans are a “happy lot”.
In his treatment of the privately-owned media in Zimbabwe, Charamba does refer to some truthfully problematic aspects of the Western attitude towards, as well as perception of, Zimbabweans and Africans. However, the totality of his argument is fatally flawed. He fails to place these “truths” in their proper historical context.
The history of Western humans has been, through the epochs, characterised by qualitative growth, advancement, and refinement of their perception of the “other” in relation to the “self”, at both individual and societal levels. It is as a result of this advancement (to which the Christian faith has contributed immensely), that history has seen Western society advance, through its own dynamics and polemics, from a position where it viewed slavery as God-ordained and defendable to one where it is viewed as an evil to be forever abolished. The West moved from viewing South African apartheid as an acceptable method of handling the diversity of races and cultures within a single nation to one where it was classified as a crime against humanity.
One can give numerous examples right down to our contemporary times where we have heard a Western leader, Tony Blair, declare to his own nationals, and to the whole world, that the poverty and suffering of Africa is “a scar on the conscience of the world”.
History has also seen the West evolve and adopt some values which all mankind seems to have no trouble adopting as “universal human” values.
These include good governance, human rights, gender sensitivity, the rule of law, and democracy. The major reason for their universal acceptability is that these values are at the core of most, if not all, human cultures.
The point is that there does exist between us in Zimbabwe and Africa on the one hand, and those in the West on the other, some commonality which both sides can explore to mutual benefit.There are now very clear and powerful voices, like Blair’s, seeking to “re-order” the world and push for Western “intrusion” and “intervention” in Zimbabwe and Africa driven by humanitarian, rather than hegemonic motives.
So when we look around Zimbabwe, as Charamba has done, and see Zimbabwean academics, journalists, researchers, religious leaders, and others engaging with Westerners, we should not rush to conclude that it’s for Western hegemonic purposes. It could be for humanitarian purposes, it could be for purposes of “re-ordering the world”.
Zimbabwe can question the values and principles that drive the West. However, it cannot fault the West for synchronising their activities when dealing with a particular country or issue. This is particularly so in our current world order, based, as it is, on the universally accepted concepts of “nation-states”.
What has all this to do with the rise and role of the privately-owned media in Zimbabwe? All the above constitutes the minimum necessary context within which we must tackle these questions: What kind of media does Zimbabwe “deserve” and to what extent do our media measure up to what we “deserve”?
At independence Zimbabwe adopted a situation where both electronic and mainstream print media were firmly under government control. Before independence the Rhodesian Front (RF) government used the media to justify the RF and to fight African nationalism. The African nationalists were portrayed as communist-inspired terrorists. The media vilified them and never gave them space to air their convictions, policies and intentions. In fact whatever they tried to say to the public was “banned”.
At independence the nationalist government allocated the media the role of promoting national unity, urging and publicising development and confronting South African apartheid. Unfortunately the nationalist government also sought to use the media it controlled in the same way that the colonial government had used it – to vilify and demonise political opponents, portraying them as enemies of the people bent on disrupting peace. The new government media sought to ridicule the emerging opposition, portraying it as enemies of the people, bent on returning power to the former colonialists.
This was the defining moment for the role and behaviour of the privately-owned media that was to emerge later in Zimbabwe. The decision by the nationalist government to use the publicly-owned media to fight political opponents, in the same way the colonialists had used it to fight the nationalists, was disastrous. On the other hand the new nationalist government was supposed to be a government of the future. Its role was to consolidate national unity, build a national consensus on what were the key and urgent national issues that needed to be addressed. The media had to buttress the new democracy by adopting policies that would ensure political maturity through free and open debate of public issues.
So the public press assumed the role of fighting the government’s battles with the emerging opposition. Their major strategy was not only to shut out the opposition from the public sphere. The press also went out of its own way to attack and vilify the opposition even ahead of government functionaries. While it correctly publicised and highlighted success in the educational, health and agricultural fields, it ignored increasing corruption and mismanagement on the part of government and quasi-government bodies.
It is in this context that the privately-owned media arose in Zimbabwe. It was the nature of the situation in which it arose that prompted it to take the form and behaviour it did.
* Dr Mazombwe is a lecturer in Languages, Literature and Media Studies at Zimbabwe Open University.