Frenemies: Politicians and journalists

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THINGS are changing, or so it seems, on how the Zimbabwean government wants to relate to the media, particularly in the private realm of the broad landscape.

Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya

Veteran journalists will tell you — in fact anybody — they remember a time when it was nearly impossible for Information minister Jonathan Moyo to sit down and discuss media issues with journalists at the height of fierce media repression.
Now it’s happening; it has been on the go since last year and it’s good for everybody.

A panel, comprising public and private media practitioners, as well as specialists from other professions, has been appointed by Moyo to inquire into “policy, editorial, legal, technological, business, human resource and institutional” issues affecting the information sector, including media.

The panel is drifting towards the tail-end of its mandate and will hand in a report soon.

However, it must be clearly stated here and now that journalists and stakeholders involved — hopefully most or all of them — are not cozying up to government and seeking to manufacture consent with politicians, to use Noam Chomsky’s phrase, to manipulate news and mislead the public. Engineering consent is not an option.

Yet in the real world it happens, although it is usually overstated. This is the current challenge for local media: to develop a constructive and progressive working relationship with its publics, including government, to de-polarise their interactions and society without becoming bedfellows.

Journalists cannot and should not be conduits for public relations or propaganda.

As part of the ongoing engagement, Moyo yesterday convened at meeting at his Munhumutapa offices in Harare to compare and exchange notes with senior journalists and stakeholders on current affairs.

This came against a backdrop of last week’s remarks by President Robert Mugabe in Kariba where he said his party officials and ministers must not rush to the “opposition media” to leak information and attack each other and subsequent reactions in some sections of the media, raising fears polarisation will not go away if leaders continue speaking like that.

It was felt by some colleagues the use of phrases like “opposition media” is polarising and should be abandoned, although government officials protested Mugabe’s remarks were distorted.

Moyo and his ministry officials yesterday raised the issue in the context of media ethics and professionalism. There was also a question how media advocacy group, Misa reacted to subsequent stories and editorials, with some feeling it shot from the hip, although its representatives demonstrated its feedback was measured.

The framework and tenor of the meeting was friendly and the dialogue reflective.

Moyo kept on saying government was not out to fight anyone, but to discuss how to engage constructively and tackle ethical challenges in the media.

But beyond that it was clear the politico-media complex — the systematic, symbiotic-like network of interactions and dynamics between the political class, media and interest groups in the positive sense, not derogatively — still has strains and friction.

That is as it should be. Healthy debate and tensions must remain so that we don’t end up with sunshine journalism all over — the see, hear and speak no evil stuff. Journalists should not hold a brief for anyone; they must serve the public interest through ethical, truthful and fearless coverage. In other words, politicians and the media must remain “frenemies”.

Media favourite Thomas Jefferson, a US constitution First Amendment advocate who declared in 1787 he would prefer newspapers without government over government without newspapers, discovered it the hard way after he was exposed for having an affair with a slave woman and somersaulted 20 years later, saying: “The man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”

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