The Eric Bloch Column

‘The truth hurts’ at Nust
By Eric Bloch

THERE is a longstanding maxim that “the truth hurts”, and the veracity of that maxim  was very apparent from not only the reaction of some students attending the School of Journalism a

t the National University of Science and Technology (Nust)  when US Ambassador Christopher Dell addressed them, but also from gleefully disparaging reports of the state-controlled press on his address.  

The ambassador, who joined the ranks of those that government  revels in unjustly castigating a year ago, when he addressed students at Africa University near Mutare,   was speaking at Nust on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day,   on May 3.

Some of the students reportedly took great umbrage at some of the ambassador’s remarks.  In fact,   the Chronicle’s banner headlines emblazoned on its billboards   were “Nust students give Dell hell”. 

Not only were those students who vitriolically attacked Ambassador Dell displaying gross discourtesy  to a guest,   but they were also demonstrating how very markedly the state’s propaganda machine has managed to brainwash them.  This is so because not only did they appear  to misconstrue what the ambassador said, but they enunciated the same falsehoods as does government repeatedly  with contentions that international  sanctions, promoted by the USA and the European Union, are a major cause of Zimbabwe’s economic morass,  and  that it is the intent of many of the Western world to destroy totally Zimbabwe’s economic well-being.

Moreover, in doing so, the students blinded themselves to an extraordinarily well-considered, highly-researched, and convincing presentation.   The theme of the ambassador’s address was that  there is  a pronounced relationship between free speech and economic  prosperity.  Very regrettably, space constraints preclude restatement of the entirety of the address, but it is incontrovertibly merited that it be cited as far as space does permits.

At the outset, the ambassador focused upon the power and responsibility of journalists, saying: “Today’s media has command over a greater breadth  and depth of information than ever.  It  enjoys unprecedented levels of technology and capital and reaches billions of people.  With the ideological wars of the Cold War behind most of the world,  it is less politically or legally fettered in most places.   If Francis Bacon’s dictum ‘knowledge is power’ remains true — and it certainly does — then the media  is surely  more powerful than ever.

“But with Bacon’s dictum I would charge the future journalists among us here to always keep close a  second, more recent dictum. It is the lesson of the great American comic  book superhero, Spiderman:  “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

“For those not familiar with Peter Parker’s web-slinging alter ego,  Spiderman repeatedly sees his super-powered attempts to do good produce unintended, often unhappy consequences. Disillusioned, he often tries to walk away from the super-hero business of trying to help people and make the world  a better place. Each time, however,  Spiderman — whose alter ego is a photo-journalist — returns to the inescapable conclusion that those with power  have an obligation to use it,   and to use it responsibly to the best of their ability.”

He then sought to define the responsibility of journalists, suggesting:

“But what exactly is the journalist’s responsibility?  There are no doubt many formulations, but let me share with you one advanced by Mahatma Gandhi — a man  who very effectively used newspapers over the span of his life to improve governance  in his own country,   change attitudes around the globe,  and make the world a  better place. 

“He cast the journalist’s responsibility as;

* to understand the popular feeling and  give expression to it;

* to arouse among the people certain  desirable sentiments; and 

* fearlessly to expose defects.  To be sure, each of these objectives sometimes conflicts with another, testifying to the  complexity of the journalist’s task.  But it is hard to imagine any proper  journalistic  effort that does not draw on one or more  of these objectives.”

Thereafter the ambassador, in his address said: “That freedom of expression is a fundamental right is axiomatic in the modern world. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression;  this right includes freedom to hold  opinions without interference and to seek,   receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.”

Unifying diverse, even conflicting political  regimes,  the declaration was ratified in 1948 by proclamation of the UN General Assembly with no opposing votes.  

He noted in particular that the Zimbabwean constitution describes freedom of expression in some length  in its Article 20.  

In the case of  In Re Munhumeso  in 1992, the Zimbabwean Supreme Court cast freedom of expression as a “vitally important right” that lies “at the foundation of a democratic society” and is a “basic condition for the progress of society and the development of persons”. 

According to the court,   freedom of expression serves four broad purposes: 

* it helps an individual to obtain self-fulfilment; 

* it assists in the discovery of truth; 

* it strengthens the capacity of an individual to participate in decision making; and 

* it provides a mechanism for establishing a reasonable balance between stability and social change.

“The relationship between free speech and economic prosperity.  Indeed, most of the four purposes of free speech defined by your Supreme Court apply directly to the foundations of economic development.

“The logic of the connection is not hard to understand.  In  a society  where freedom of expression is tolerated,  open debate can flourish.   In a competitive  marketplace of ideas, all ideas — in large part  by and through an energetic media — can be aired and the best rise  to the top.   Here I’m simply echoing (US Supreme Court) Justice Holmes’  rationale and the second purpose articulated in the Zimbabwean Court’s formula.  

“For governments,  this dynamic  process yields policies that best account for conflicting variables, policies that balance the interests of all groups.  Such policies maximise  the effectiveness of economic players — buyers and sellers, producers and consumers,  regulators and the regulated,  individuals and corporations. The result instils confidence in domestic and international investors to act in such  a climate. The whole open process drives growth, builds prosperity and — advancing the Zimbabwean Court’s first purpose — fosters individual self-fulfilment.”

He expanded upon his theme with convincing explanations that “the logic of free speech’s underpinning of economic prosperity on the micro-level is not complicated.  If producers and consumers do not operate in a transparent system with information flowing freely between and among them, pricing mechanisms will be “too high”, resulting in consumers spending more of their disposable income — at the expense of other  consumption — and getting less. If you  have to spend all your available money to buy petrol at black market prices,  you will have to forego something else — sadza, school fees, chibuku, whatever.  In some cases prices will be “too low”,  resulting in wide shortages and disinvestments by producers.  When the price of sugar is frozen by regulation below its cost to the shopkeeper, for  example, sugar disappears from the shelves and consumers must do without.

“Innumerable distortions emerge in this environment:  shortages of basic  commodities such as food, fuel, and foreign exchange;  unfair two-tiered pricing,  with artificially cheap prices for elites and steep  black market prices for those not politically  favoured;  diversion  of increasingly scarce private resources from  productive investment to basic consumption; diversion of increasingly scarce public and private resources to import what the economy can no longer produce;  resistance by elites with a stake in an inefficient and unfair system to any efforts to change that system.

“Without a free flow of information, the privileged few who have access to and control of information can manipulate information flows to benefit themselves at the expense of the majority. While such a system  enriches a very few, it impoverishes the vast majority and undermines a society’s overall economic  prosperity. In nearly all cases,  the system of restricted access to information serves as a foundation for corruption on a massive scale that misallocates societal resources and widens the gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

“In all cases, efficiency and productivity  suffer. While it is today fashionable in some quarters to declare that the laws of supply and demand can be suspended at will,  you don’t need a PhD in economics to understand that this flaunts human nature — people understand their interests and act accordingly. Those who pretend  otherwise should remember King Canute and his doomed effort to tell the tide it should not rise.”

What principally raised the ire of some students was the ambassador’s contention that Zimbabwe suffers suppression of freedom of speech,  one of the consequences being a contribution to the  sorry state of the economy.  

The students challenged this,  clearly oblivious to the constraints Aippa and Posa impose on freedom  of expression. Those horrendous and draconian laws have prevented publication of some newspapers  and peaceful gatherings of people not accorded  authorisation by the police. 

Zimbabwe does not have that freedom prescribed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its absence is a very significant contributory factor to the sad state of the economy. The ambassador had the courage to say so,   but some of his audience found the home-truths  unpalatable,  which  evidences the same lack of maturity as that which has characterised government for all too long.