Recent threats against the media by Information minister Chris Mushohwe are something every journalist would prefer to wish away as mere politicking, but not until the permanent secretary to the same ministry, George Charamba, also issues an acerbic warning to a journalist in a tele-conversation.
Picking up from where his immediate boss left off, Charamba told Zimbabwe Independent reporter Elias Mambo, that should the media continue to write on the security sector, journalists would find themselves at the country’s infamous Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare. He said government would search for the sources of the stories.
“If you do not heed the advice, then we will descend on you heavily. The minister warned you and quote me on this, we will use other instruments to make sure you stop reporting on military issues,” Charamba said. “I have defended journalists as my colleagues several times, but be warned this time we will descend on you. We will be looking for your military sources while you are locked up at Chikurubi. I am warning you as my colleague.”
These threats obviously have a chilling effect on any journalist. Its implications point to an arbitrary intention to imprison journalists both as punishment and as a way of violating their principle of protection of sources.
Some newspaper contributors, writing under pseudonyms, have also added salt to insult by stoking government’s burning desire to imprison journalists by piling the blame on private media.
Some have made odd metaphorical references to the Bible and baiting of crocodiles. In the process they give the impression that there is inevitability to censure of journalists that write in a manner that government finds unpalatable.
This would also explain the continued use of criminal defamation laws to arrest journalists and, in the latest case, even the Alpha Media Holdings legal secretary Sifikile Thabete, for publishing stories deemed to undermine the security services or viewed as being “false”.
The only surprising element is that these direct threats against the media are occurring within the context of what would have been a new phase for government — media relations in the aftermath of the state-sponsored Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (Impi) report.
While Impi has its own controversies, it is increasingly evident that it has not been the much-anticipated indication of a thawing of frosty relations between government and the mainstream media.
The statements by Mushohwe and Charamba therefore demonstrate a number of intentions that the media should consider with utmost seriousness. One being that any sort of honeymoon period for media-government relations is over. Where the carrot was used during Impi, from now on it appears the stick will be government’s engagement method of preference.
This, in order to have the effect of indirect control of media content, especially on news that government considers harmful to the interests of the ruling party disguised as national interest.
Furthermore, the eventual intention is to crowd out the private print media through creation of other multimedia platforms.
This is already being done in relation to broadcasting licenses (local commercial and eventually community radios), the digitisation processes currently underway, government support of independent content producers and continued state subsidies for state media.
Because all of the country’s private print media is struggling to stay afloat, there is the further advantage to government that the former will shrink on its own. A combination of a debilitating economic environment together with a highly competitive but smaller mainstream media market will leave the private media on the brink of closure. Government will, however, only step in to give direct assistance if the private media tows the official line in relation to content that is in the “national interest”.
In this context, it is the media that must find new negotiating ground as they seek to protect editorial independence in the face of these emerging and somewhat unexpected political manouevres. The options are few. They include attempting to come to some sort of agreement with government on what is “national security” and “national interest”.
However, this would negatively affect the democratic independence of the media. The reality is that this is an issue that will obviously loom large at the announced January 2016 indaba between government and the media. Alternatively, the media can huddle and in a demonstration of rare unity, stand its democratic ground by insisting on its right to exist without undue and arbitrary interference from the state.
This may not take the form of a directly confrontational approach, but will be based on a principled understanding of the democratic role of the media in our society. With it will come a number of professional and ethical obligations and implementation frameworks for the media as determined by media stakeholders with input also from the state via the Information ministry.
And this is the crux of the matter because it is the operational framework of the media and its related content that government appears keen on controlling. Where the media fails to do so independently, the state is very willing to define it anew. Even arbitrarily so, despite the current and looming Constitutional Court challenges.
Zhangazha is a media activist and writes here in his personal capacity. — takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com