ZEC should be tough on hate language
By Vincent Kahiya
THE Zimbabwe Electoral Commission on Wednesday called us to a meeting to discuss the conduct of the media in the elections set for next month.
align=justify>The import of the meeting was to discuss the amendment to the Electoral Act which inserted a whole new section dealing with how the media should conduct itself during the election period.
The amendment, which went generally unnoticed by journalists, contains useful guidelines, a lot of which we have embraced as stated in this column last week.
We however did not wholly agree with the commission’s interpretation of a clause in the Amendment Act which reads: “During an election period broadcasters and print publishers shall ensure … their media do not promote political parties and candidates that encourage violence and hatred against any class of persons in Zimbabwe…”
The commission reads the clause to mean that the media should not report hateful and inflammatory statements uttered by politicians as this could lead to political violence.
During the meeting, the commission sought to buttress this by bringing in the case of the Rwandese genocide in which the media, and in particular radio broadcasting, was instrumental in instigating and sustaining ethnic conflict.
As we stated last week, it is not the role of the media to deliberately excise information uttered by political protagonists because the information could result in political violence.
Instead, our role is to report as accurately as is possible and to provide information about those seeking public office. This includes candidates’ views, past performance, their decorum and so on.
If a candidate’s views are always couched in foul and inflammatory language, then voters have a right to know this. For us to deliberately ignore this is a great travesty because it only serves the politician whose dark side will never be known and denies the voter an opportunity to make choice premised on accurate information.
The relevance of the reference to Rwanda in attempting to focus the media away from hate language by our politicians is questionable if not dubious.
Media researcher Richard Carver, in a paper on the role of the media in the Rwandese genocide and elections, wrote: “The first point to note is that RTLM was not an ordinary radio station reporting the extreme views of others. It was an instrument of Hutu extremists who planned and instigated the mass killings of Tutsi. Hence it is not directly relevant to the issue of campaign reporting, where extreme statements may be made and then relayed through the news media.”
He added: “In its early months, up until the beginning of the genocide in April 1994, it broadcast a form of subtle and entertaining anti-Tutsi propaganda. But once the genocide started, the character of RTLM’s broadcasts changed. Then it began giving details of those who were to be hunted down and killed — right down to individual descriptions and car number plates.”
The media in Zimbabwe have not plumbed these depths of depravity but an important way of pre-empting this is to report accurately offending utterances by politicians and to publish reactions condemning such statements.
There have been a number of these like President Mugabe bragging about his “degrees in violence” or the widely quoted statement: “Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy . . .”
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was also quoted warning Mugabe: “If you don’t want to go peacefully, we will remove you violently.”
If two politicians were to make similar statements during this election period, the commission is saying that we should exercise restraint and look the other way. Our advice to the commission is that it has an important role to curb hate speech at source and not at the outlet.
For example, does the commission consider this statement by war veteran leader Joseph Chinotimba offensive or commonplace political power play: “From today to the nomination date we will
have finished with them. Traitors should know that Zanu PF has a history of dealing harshly with their kind.”
We are looking forward to bold statements by the commission condemning hate language by politicians and we have made a commitment to provide space to publicise such statements.
We have also invited the commission to point out instances where this paper has used hate language likely to cause violence and other untoward outcomes. This we do in the hope that the commission will treat all media objectively and fearlessly.
The challenge for the commission is to judge between free speech — the hallmark of democracy — and hate speech. When it’s convenient to politicians, there is a very thin line between the two.