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Editor’s Memo

Editors divided

I HAVE been following reports in the media about the new group of editors that has emerged to counter our own grouping, the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum or Zinef. The new format

ion is called the Zimbabwe Association of Editors and is headed by Chronicle editor Stephen Ndlovu.

The group claims to be affiliated to the Southern African Editors Forum.

I was invited by Ndlovu to participate in the inaugural meeting of the new association. But, I was curtly informed, the purpose of the meeting would be to duplicate and presumably absorb our existing organisation which represents editors in the private sector. Ndlovu announced that the new grouping would also be called Zinef and would render our group defunct by incorporating editors from both the private and state media.

We have always held the door open to our colleagues in the state sector, stipulating that adherence to the principle of freedom of expression was the only criterion for membership. We recently adopted a code of conduct which binds us to certain professional standards. About seven independent publications make up the Zinef membership.

Apart from Ndlovu, I was approached by editors in the rival grouping to attend their inaugural meeting held recently in Harare. There was no intention to take over our organisation, I was assured. But in the absence of a formal withdrawal of the proposal to adopt our name and legal identity I felt it unwise to attend. I was supported in this by my colleagues in Zinef.

After all, Zinef was already a registered trust. And all the new formation needed was a couple of us from the independent media to be present for them to claim that they were the authentic national editors’ forum, a move that would have been endorsed by the Southern African Editors Forum.

In the event we stayed away, Ndlovu’s group evidently decided to drop its claim to our title, and the Zimbabwe Association of Editors emerged as a largely state-aligned body.

I gather that the original mandate from the SAEF was for a unitary body in Zimbabwe to emerge out of dialogue between our own group and those seeking to establish an alternative body. If that is the case, our door is open to negotiation. But for such an umbrella body to emerge there will have to be a change of attitude on the part of state editors. The new association says it will promote the highest ethical and professional standards and is committed to freedom of expression. We wait with interest to see what those standards are.

For instance, the Sunday Mail last weekend carried this opinion in one of its columns: “Just when the government thought the revolution at the courts was over, there seems to be something stinking there. Under the Surface smells some Justice Gubbay residue and this residue stinks so bad that it is cause for concern.

“What makes this Gubbay residue even more dangerous is that it has the colour that we can identify with and speaks our mother language, but the thinking stinks of colonial ideas.

“Of course, some will say let’s have some democracy but why leave a snake in the house? One day the snake will strike while we concentrate on pressing issues and it will be too late to hit its poisonous head.”

I would be interested to know how those remarks, which should be drawn to the attention of the International Bar Association, accord with the “highest ethical and professional standards” the new body of editors proclaims.

Last Friday, the Herald carried an editorial calling Dr Lovemore Madhuku an “ex-convict” and “quisling” when exercising his constitutional right to demonstrate for a new constitution. His conduct was “extremely provocative and defiant”, the Herald said. “To those in the know, Madhuku was pulling his usual stunt and engaging in conduct that he knew would invite the immediate and justified wrath of the law-enforcement agents.

“He did not seek permission from the police to hold the demonstration knowing the police would move against him and his gang…Pictures of a bandaged and blood-stained Madhuku after alleged scuffles with the police only serve to make the ex-convict look important and look as if he has a legitimate cause.”

Is this the view of a newspaper that upholds freedom of expression? Should we in the independent press who subscribe to freedom of expression and the right to dissent have anything to do with an organisation that embraces papers that conduct scurrilous attacks of this sort on jurists and civil society leaders who display any sign of independent thought? Do we want to be part of an organisation whose members’ papers are used to advertise the arrests of fellow journalists and appear to celebrate their incarceration?

Clearly, we have different views about freedom of expression, tolerance of divergent views and professional standards. The Herald on Wednesday gave its endorsement to Aippa, a law that despite the claims of its authors, has no place in a democratic society. The Herald said the Act was “a necessary check to guard against malicious media excesses”.

We witnessed what looked like a “malicious media excess” last Saturday concerning Philip Chiyangwa but the editor said it was all the fault of “an over-zealous sub-editor (who) got carried away as they are inclined to do”.

It would seem there is a notice on the editor’s desk saying “the buck doesn’t stop here”!

Those who want to know what it’s really like working as an editor in the state media should look no further than Bill Saidi’s letter on Page 7.

So you can well understand why, together with my colleagues in Zinef, I am going to be very circumspect about the Zimbabwe Association of Editors until we see distinct signs of change.

As for the Herald’s claim that it acts in the national interest, I would be interested to know how blind support for a regime that has crushed democratic rights, closed newspapers and pauperised the country, driving hundreds of thousands of citizens into exile, can remotely be seen as serving the national interest.

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