Candid Comment: Barriers to Journalism not Insurmountable

I HAVE just got a job and began work this week. Give me a pam-pam … but wait a minute.  Here is an anecdote:

Before the day of the assumption of duty I had visited my new place of work at least twice for the interviews and all the other little things that accompany job hunting in a country whose unemployment runs at more than 80%.

On each occasion of course the first point of call was the security guard, dark and menacing, seated at the entrance. I had expected to be welcomed, as in the past, by a lovely receptionist with the smile of an angel seated nymph-like on a swivel chair, nimbly punching away on a keyboard with the phone precariously held to the ear by a shoulder.

But in front of me was a forbidding desk behind which sat Attila the Hun himself; so I had to endure the pernickety questions and that suspicious glare. On the first day I was late for the interview because my answers would not satisfy him. I had to phone HR for intervention. The same thing happened on the second visit and then also on the day I assumed duty.

Strangely I wasn’t miffed by all this. In Zimbabwe the most loathed individual in society is the security guard; bad songs have been sung about him. He has been insulted in the street by mere babes but I believe society lays the blame for the guard’s behaviour on the wrong man.

So, rather than getting annoyed, I saw through him; behind that hostile façade there was deep heartfelt compassion.

Contrary to public opinion it takes a lot of humanity to be a security guard; the kind of humanity that inspires one to protect others who are in grave danger.

As he finally allowed me to enter the newsroom I figured out why he was wary of strangers. Inside that heavily barricaded newsroom was an endangered species that had to be protected.

Not long back a seemingly friendly visitor had delivered a live bullet in an envelope; the recipient, an elderly scribe who was running his last lap in the field of journalism.

Even as I entered the newsroom for the first time in five years I was aware that two of my new colleagues were facing court action for publishing a story whose contents was already in the public domain. It was beholden upon the security guard to ensure that nobody, but nobody, would have access to the two and the others (now including me) who work with them and do them harm.

But the question that came to mind was what have journalist done to deserve this? Why has our dear country become about the most dangerous place in the world for journalists to work in?

There are many bad things that have happened to journalists working in Zimbabwe in the last few years; they are well documented and will be beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say they include arbitrary arrests, abductions, and bombings of newsrooms and printing presses.

Recently I had read on Misa-Zimbabwe website what were called Safety Measures for Journalists Working in Zimbabwe.  They were summarised thus: “Instinct, Intuition and Wisdom should be the operative words for those journalists working in hostile environments. Above all, no story is worth dying for!”

All very discouraging but I had dismissed this as too much fuss. I realised how foolish I had been to think that the atmosphere in the newsroom of today would be the same as that of 10 years or even five years ago when pompous young reporters would shout at the top of their voices that they had landed a “scoop” or that they had had an “exclusive” interview with such and such political luminary.

But when a reporter is continually reminded: “When venturing into volatile political areas, journalists should intuitively know when to retreat”, it becomes rather intriguing for in our country every area has become a volatile political area.

At my first editorial conference I noticed that the young journalists, behind the façade of self-confidence, were in fact very cowed. One or two were chewing on their fingernails while others sat deep in their chairs as if hiding from some dark invisible force.

I could feel they had the leads to great copy but they knew their limitations; as they presented their diary items one could feel them holding back. They were quietly saying, “I’ve got a scoop but it’s out of my bounds.”

In the good old days it was the duty of the journalists to prick the bubbles of the high and mighty; to deflate their bloated egos. But now a superfluity of rules and regulations mean this can only be done at one’s own peril.

But journalists will win yet because they have a job to do.

Below is a nice little quotation from a book called Reporting for Change: A Handbook for Local Journalists Working in Crisis Areas: “…the media’s core contribution to democracy and development is responsible fact-based reporting. Providing reliable information to support responsible public debate, hold officials accountable, and inform the decisions of the electorate — these are the underlying tasks of the media in a democratic society.”

The powers-that-be must be reminded: The higher you build your barriers the taller we become.

Madanhire has joined the Zimbabwe Independent as deputy editor.

Nevanji Madanhire

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