Free Press no Threat to Democracy

IN the Sunday Mail of April 12 the defunct Media and Information Commission (MIC)’s chairperson Tafataona Mahoso wrote once again, as he has done for many years, on what was supposed to be a great revelation to the people of Zimbabwe regarding the role of the independent media that should, in his understanding, make the people afraid and sceptical of the “free press”.


He does not explain what the free press is or why we should support the state-owned Zimbabwean press that is virtually under the control of Zanu PF and used for its propaganda purposes, even as we talk of a unity government.

The press that Mahoso writes for and supports denied the ravages of cholera, political violence, political prisoners, food shortages and many other social ills that have cost thousands of lives just a few months ago. It does not explain why we are in the ninth year of hunger despite the land reform.

In other words it serves the interests of Zanu PF which Mahoso confuses with those of Zimbabwe.

It is a press that is a curse to the people of Zimbabwe from its founding by Cecil John Rhodes to its takeover by Zanu PF.

More than writing about the “dangers” of the free press, we also need to understand that Mahoso writes for himself, seeking reassurance for his fears, both professional and personal. He seeks to fight against the rightful, historical and necessary erosion of a system that he has come to believe, and one his life is tied to and dependent on.

His defence of continued media repression by promoting an unfounded fear of the free press is a reflection of a personal, ideological and professional wilderness that he finds himself in.

Mahoso begins his article by anchoring his views on the supposed worldwide revolt against the corporate press, which he bands together with evils such as the worldwide financial crisis.

Yes, the independent press is part of the corporate sector in many areas, and in all fairness there is nothing wrong with the corporate sector. All modern states are developed as a result of personal/group enterprise.

As is the case in other sectors of the economy such as mining and manufacturing, the modern media cannot exist without investment in machinery, training, among other things. Indeed the whole process of news writing can be seen as an industrial process, from the way in which newsrooms are arranged to the final product received by consumers. There is nothing wrong with that.

In terms of its content, the media has systems that ensure fairness and balance. The challenge to maintain this balance is not enforced by laws like Aippa in democratic societies, but left to such bodies as voluntary media councils, training and direct interaction between media and its consumers. Consumers can exercise their power by simply not purchasing the product.

Media consumers are not empty slates waiting to be informed by the media; they interrogate what they read, believe it or throw it away depending on their background knowledge, social or political beliefs.

It is for this reason that most urbanites in Zimbabwe simply don’t believe the Herald, Mahoso and the Sunday Mail. The key issue in the relationship between the media and societies with a free press is that such a press is not homogenous.

The free press has natural countervailing forces and hence no single idea or view is dominant or forced onto society as is the case in Zimbabwe.

No media operates the same hence democratic and liberal societies allow as many voices to be heard as possible.

These voices are not expected to be monolithic, but diverse and representative of a multiplicity of views.

It is for these reasons that there were demonstrations in Washington, London, Paris etc against the war in Iraq and recently the Israeli war with Hamas in Palestine. It is precisely because of this that Mahoso was able to read about the voices labelling other media as part of the corporate sector in the West. Those voices were carried by the media; Mahoso was not part of the demonstrations in either Washington or London.

It is also because of this fundamental belief in the promotion of a free press and freedom of expression in general in democratic societies that Mahoso is able to quote, regularly out of context, the writings of many academics and activists on the left, in the West.

The same free thinking and freedoms that allows him to receive this information are unfortunately banned in Zimbabwe and he has been a chief advocate for the banning of the Daily News, the Tribune and other newspapers.

Mahoso does not believe in free thinking hence his support for the ban of foreign journalists and daylight robbery of foreign media organisations working in Zimbabwe and foreign journalists wishing to visit.

His reliance on the Western media and Western leftist ideas and information to formulate his warped thinking about how the press should be in Zimbabwe betrays his hypocrisy. Mahoso’s writings have largely benefited from the free press and freedom of expression ideals and practices of the west.        

As is expected in most of his writings, Mahoso blatantly lies that the independent media first is a “regime change media” and secondly supported the call for sanctions. We don’t need to labour this argument other than say that Mahoso cannot produce a single story to support his statement.

Genuine criticism of Zanu PF by a concerned citizenry through the media is, in Mahoso’s scheme of things, regime change. 

Mahoso talks of the rule of law in the media, by this I suppose he means banning newspapers that write what he does not like as he has already done.

And as for banning journalists who write what he does not like, again we need not labour ourselves on this matter save to say Mahoso is wrong because the media are the voices of the people, and you cannot ban corporates, individuals, political parties and civil society from speaking.

The rule of law with regard to the media should be about legal protection of media rights and state advancement of media and free expression rights, and restrictions on monopolies in the media industry, not about shutting down newspapers and arresting journalists as Mahoso advocates.

It is the need to advance free expression that the Windhoek Declaration was put in place. The Windhoek Declaration acknowledges the universality of freedom of expression. Obviously Mahoso does not.

At the end of it all, what we read in Mahoso’s Sunday Mail article is a convoluted and misleading argument that lacks an understanding of how the media operates and what its role is.

Rashweat Mukundu is a programme specialist for Media Freedom Monitoring, Misa regional secretariat, Windhoek.

BY RASHWEAT MUKUNDU