HomeCommentCandid Comment: Problem of fundamentalism in the media

Candid Comment: Problem of fundamentalism in the media

ADDRESS to Unesco Seminar for Editors: Building Bridges and Closing the Gaps –– An Editors Dialogue Towards Common Ground at St Lucia Park, Harare, on Tuesday.

AS I sat down to put together a few points for this event, my mind never stopped wondering why Unesco did not think of a peace-keeping force between the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity and the media, principally the private media. We need to regain our peace, don’t we, dear editors?
And which organisation other than a UN agency to do peace enforcement and then keeping ensuring that our mutual egos are satisfied that indeed ours has been a cosmic conflict threatening international peace and security! For the truth of the matter, Sir, is that you are dealing with two professions where high egos drive and consume matters. Politics is a big-ego field. So is journalism. As a student of the media, I often wonder whether these two species realise how much they look alike, warts and all. Their deformities are remarkably shared. So is the damage they wreak on mankind, whether in partnership or as soon-to-reconcile contrarieties. If truth be told, in our highly mediased world, politics plays out through the media. This is why I am here as your permanent secretary. I was hired by politics to make them pretty. I am politics’ technician. I need you. Often, I demand you.
In our highly politicised environment, the media is politics, raw politics, which is why you are here as little, imperfect shadows of bickering politicians, hoping –– thanks to Unesco –– to broker your own GPA as titles, as editors. However the talks go, please never create an inclusive government! I am in the kitchen. There is lots of smoke but hardly much cooking going on! Like me you have been hired by political publishers to become their technicians to either defend and deepen the status quo or to challenge and change it. You need me, the only difference being that some need me alive while others need me in a coffin. Whether as a competent communicator or a cold cadaver, you have me here and now.
Unesco has put together this roundtable to deal with the problem of a polarised media. It is not an imaginary problem. It is real. Let us acknowledge it. We in the ministry have acknowledged it. In fact the thesis of a polarised media came from the ministry when all of you in the media were still wondering what it was that afflicted you. But acknowledging a problem is not accepting it. I take it this gathering is your statement of rejecting continued polarisation. Your ministry has already rejected that polarisation by way of the media indaba we held in Kariba and to which Unesco was invited. This was our first tentative step towards rebuilding an inclusive media industry in the country.
We intend to consolidate on the spirit of Kariba.
But let us be clear on what ailment we intend to cure. The problem is polarisation which to me suggests unproductive divisions, barren antagonism and extreme unreasonableness often translating into mutually ruinous camps. My paper, my reporter, my story, my source, my editor, my publisher, my principal/donor right or wrong: that attitude is what is wrong and polarising.
A problem of fundamentalism in the media; that to us in the ministry is the problem. What is worse, it is given to sickening name-calling, vicious “othering” or profiling.
It is the bane of unthinking egocentrism. Interestingly, Zimbabwean editors have not lost one another over professional questions. The fury has not been over training, remuneration, ethics, escalating input costs, distribution, advertisers, tax regime, media financing, market depth and efficiencies, or the ever-growing threat of an all-flattening Western global media network. No! All these matters have been shunted aside, real and pressing though they are. The fury has been over who makes a better prince of power Robert Mugabe or Morgan Tsvangirai; over what makes a better party Zanu PF or MDC-T. You have been polarised by politics, not by journalism. Let that truth be acknowledged so we all know where and when the rain began to beat us.
You have been polarised by politics not because you are victims of politicians, but because you have become political yourselves. The phenomenon of pressman-turned-political activist hit our newsrooms about the same time of land reforms, itself another political milestone, not a journalistic one. And when you bring in a dry log full of ants, expect a visit from the lizard, Chinua Achebe reminded us.
My first postulate was that politics have become highly mediased and that the media have become highly politicised. When you attempt to re-draw the chasm that divides you, you discover it neatly coincides with the chasm that splits the politics of the country. That tells you how political your newsrooms are, or the obverse, how much of an enormous lie your pretensions to apoliticalness is. The trouble in joining the political fray instead of reporting it as you should comes particularly when the bickering politicians begin to like or even love each other. You risk getting trampled upon as the game of mad love begins. In Kariba my minister posed a question which he never meant to be rhetorical. He asked: “If yesterday you differed over us politicians, who are you still differing over, now that we politicians have joined hands in the inclusive government? Whose army are you? Where is your general? This question appears more poignant with each day that passes. When Prime Minister Tsvangirai says 98% of the issues under GPA have been overcome, how come only 2% have been overcome in the media? Is polarisation a domestic question or an external one? What is the role of the persistently unresolved EU/America––Zimbabwe dynamic in stoking the fires that burn bridges? What is the role of foreign media donors typified by OSISA and its various localised vehicles here in stiffening polarisation?
Why is a country so dubbed an investment black-hole such a roaring attraction for the usually fastidious and choosy media funders and investors? Let us not forget this very important foreign factor in our search for solutions.
I place another dynamic on the table. Is partisanship the same as polarisation? Is partisanship a problem for journalism? Is it desirable even for all media to be pro-one thing? A campaign to get the Herald to become the Independent or the Independent to become the Herald cannot be media-related. It can only be political, bad politics at that. A sound body-politic always has fissures and fissures come from institutions of dissent, institutions that dare go against the spirit of the age. Whichever part of the world you turn to, the media are organised along partisan lines. Just last week, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun decided it will shine on the Conservatives. I was there in the UK as a student when the same Murdoch decided way back in 1996/97 that the same Sun shines on Tony Blair and his New Labour. As Murdoch flips to this party, flops to that other party, the firmament of the British media industry does not fail! Quite the contrary the industry remains both strong and united.
More important, as the Sun takes a political position, the editor and his staff do not begin to overrun facts, create them even. The trouble begins when you are in the habit of damning facts to damn politicians. There is no necessary conflict between partisanship and professionalism, no necessary link between partisanship and polarisation. Let the Herald remain the Herald, the Financial Gazette the Financial Gazette, each marked off against the other simply by contrasting perspectives. If that fundamental position is granted by you here, your publishers will forthwith cease to chase unattainable goals such as wishing or hoping for the destruction of the other in the hope of editorial plenty. After all its Swiftian wisdom that nothing is great or small except by comparison. Let us move away from quality-implying name calling such as “government controlled” this or that. Surely reverse logic will then demand that you match this by saying “Trevor-controlled, Wilson-controlled, Curling-controlled, OSISA-funded…?” Editorial differences need not polarise us.
It is a prerogative of an employed editor to wonder why this or that organisation is in the media, or has grown into a behemoth. To an unemployed media graduand, the cat catches the mouse. And as it turns out, the public media has kept jobs, sustained families. Let us not create false issues. With the changes in the media and laws governing the media, the only factor which most likely will attract new investments in the media will be the unresolved question between us and the British over land. Once that gets resolved, the false effervescence in the media will die down. The public media has been the source of stability and the growth there has been in the industry. These are bare facts.
Going by a dominating ethic certainly does. We have witnessed, often with alarm, bodies which are created in the name of the media by interests and even personnel with nothing or little to do with the media.
There are councils, there are forums, which are just an obscenity by founding, funding, goal and composition. You guys have tended to be organised by money, never by promptings of your own minds, to adapt a Shakespearian saying. The Voluntary Media Council will never come right until and unless it abolishes itself, to again found itself as a genuine media effort.
As if you have nothing to fear! The recent changes to the constitution are ominous to the media and should have, one would have thought, galvanised the industry into creating genuine, consensual bodies reflecting your will, never of the external other. It scares me stiff when violent opposition to the Media and Information Commission (MIC) is cured by a poor recreation of the same MIC with greater powers implied by the aura of constitutionalism. The raw message coming through the constitutional Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) is that better be misgoverned by gods than by mere mortals! That bizarre logic prevailed because you were divided and were giving negotiating politicians conflicting positions. You were unclear about what you did not like, woefully even less clear about what you liked. I hope you are now clearer about the media you want, lest you again miss the constitution-making window to right things.
Greater fear for you must come from the inclusive government.
It gets worrisome when brand new ministers lean heavily on the ministry to do “something” to the public media each time the news from there is not quite flattering. It gets scaring when you editors echo the same desire against your own simply because it is the Herald, the Sunday Mail, etc. From my little stay in the house of politicians, no politician fears the people. Politicians fear whoever it is that puts thoughts into the mind of the people. With the inclusive government in place, there is a real risk of consensual misgovernance, which is why you need to see and operate beyond false boundaries.
But I have also said the inclusive government has done one thing which is wonderful. It has clarified matters. In a situation where Zanu PF and MDC formations are now in government, it means issues are no longer simplified to this party’s position or that party’s position. Never has there been a time in the history of this country that it has been possible to identify and quantify the national interest which to me is what should be uppermost in your minds. Increasingly hitherto warring politicians will have to share glory, endure same blame. You as editors can only do so from a vantage point which lies outside Zanu PF or MDC formations. That position can only be a national one.
Lastly, the operating environment has been a very harsh one. Vital inputs like newsprint have been hard to come by, harder to pay for. Printing costs have been escalating. Distribution costs have been rising all the time. Training costs have followed the same upward trend. Meanwhile the reader had become more and more of a reluctant client much as we remain a voraciously reading society.
Sooner than later, your publishers have to jump the chasm to share these costs by building economies of scale. As your secretary, I cannot wait for that time in the evolution of the media when I begin to tackle with you these dangerously underestimated factors which to my mind have claimed more media jobs than Aippa and Posa multiplied by a factor of 10.
Let me conclude by making a point or two on media legislation. I making the point, I am fully conscious of incongruities I am creating for myself. After the constitution of ZMC, and with the announcement of the new board for Baz recently, the ministry will have little to do in respect of enforcing rules of the media game. If anything, its role will trim down to making policy, itself a residual role. What will enlarge is its role as a media proprietor, which is why I deserve a seat on this table! We have already accepted the Kariba recommendation to split Aippa into two laws dealing with access issues and regulatory issues. From the tenor of discussion and issues raised at Kariba, I do not anticipate a legislative seismic shift. The shift will come from implementation and of course the coming on stream of new actors. Had it not been for the freezing interim judgment in the High Court, this programme of more voices would have already started.
There are two matters I do not agree to which have been done by the inclusive government, specifically by the Finance ministry without any consultation. I do not agree that Wilf Mbanga’s Zimbabwean or the South African-published Sunday Times must come into this market free of charge. Meanwhile newsprint imported from South Africa is made to pay duty. Mbanga pays nothing except what it takes to ship in his product. Trevor (Ncube) pays all-round: from rates to NSSA, only to meet a footloose Mbanga at the stalls. Ncube creates jobs here. Mbanga takes them to England. He does the same with his sales. Let’s not build market chasms. The practise of cover tax is worldwide. It is meant to encourage growth and diversity in the home market. Similarly, you cannot start piling dollars and concessions on cell-phones while starving organs of mass communication such as the radio. After twiddling with your blackberry, you still need to know how the world has been beyond the internet. Personalised ICT builds on working platforms of mass communication. The two measures are not developmental and we will definitely be engaging Finance on these two measures. Had it not been for our inventiveness, ZBC signal would have shrunk to well under 20% reach. How do you talk about constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression when you cannot impart of receive information simply because platforms have decayed or gone obsolete through non-investment?

Charamba is Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity.


George Charamba

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