The sensational reports –– which one of the online publications, the Zimbabwe Mail, helped to start and fuel –– reached fever pitch a few days ago when it was claimed Mugabe was on his “deathbed” and “undergoing intensive treatment” at a hospital in Singapore.
The reports sought to provide a vivid account of the situation by further claiming Mugabe’s relatives had flown to Singapore in a private jet to be with him at a clinic as his situation was critical.
In journalism, reporters who want to be believed always try to provide a vivid account to enhance the credibility of their stories. A vivid retelling not only increases chances of people remembering the account, but also tends to increase emotional reactions.
This is what the reports on Mugabe’s ill-health sought to do and succeeded in a way as shown by resultant anxiety and angry reactions which subsequently followed. The reports caused havoc and confusion on a somewhat global scale. Certain instructive issues arise out of the reports and what transpired afterwards.
The first one is the authenticity of the reports. Now that we know the reports were false and that The Zimbabwe News & Media (Pvt) Ltd, which owns the Zimbabwe Mail, has admitted as much and apologised, we can only express dismay and disgust at those stories.
Although most people still do not trust online publications largely because of their lack of professionalism and accountability, it is important to note websites are important sources of news and information, especially in this age of social media.
So when they start writing inaccurate or false reports, unleashing confusion on a grand scale, it becomes rather worrying. For us in the media, what is disturbing about this emerging phenomenon of mendacious reporting is the damage which such reports inflict, not just on the platforms concerned, but on the profession. It must be stated even though an apology has been issued, the damage had already been done.
The trouble with this is that it makes it difficult going forward for other media organisations to cover what is otherwise a legitimate story in the public interest. Mugabe’s health is unquestionably in the public interest and there is no problem with the media covering it. What is important is to always ensure the reports are accurate and balanced. Yes, reporters make mistakes but that’s why we must verify our stories before publishing. Had that been done on the current saga, this embarrassing situation could have been avoided.
The other thing is Mugabe’s advisors and spokesmen must also talk to the media on this issue to avoid fuelling speculation and damaging ripple effects. Instead of always waiting to react to reports about Mugabe’s health situation, it would be useful for them to clarify this issue once and for all.
While government last year issued a statement, saying Mugabe was travelling to Singapore for an eye surgery as he had cataracts, it was not enough, especially when it was prompted by reports of his ill-health and shuttling between Harare and the Far East in the first place.
On the current occasion, even if it was announced he was going to look for a university place for his daughter, subsequent reports, although baseless, showed people do not believe Mugabe’s spokesmen and in fact sometimes speciously think the opposite of what they say is true. It shows they have a credibility problem.
On Wednesday, we had a meeting as editors with Information minister Webster Shamu at his request (although it turned out he only wanted to talk to the NewsDay and Daily News) and discussed this issue. It was a friendly encounter although he expressed grave concerns about how Mugabe’s health story was being covered. We made our positions clear the issue is in the public interest but agreed with him coverage must be factual and responsible.
But there is also another dimension to this. Who is behind the latest reports on Mugabe’s ill-health? Is this not disinformation by intelligence services which want to manipulate the media and people by discrediting certain information or supporting false conclusions for political purposes?
It would be worth investigating this to see whether this was not black propaganda. Some say it is disinformation to manage Mugabe’s very real health problems and gullible reporters fell for the intentionally false reports spread deliberately to discredit the media and “kill” the niggling story ahead of elections. Let’s find out.