Media must shape transition

ON Wednesday, I took part in a Sapes forum discussion on the state of the media and its role in Zimbabwe’s political transition, with other colleagues.

EDITOR’S MEMO BY DUMISANI MULEYA

Although the debate, organised by Dr Ibbo Mandaza, was vibrant and insightful, it was unfortunate other editors from the state-run Zimpapers and ZBC did not pitch up despite having been invited to dissect current media issues and explain the role journalists could play in the country’s political transition defined by a broken economy, political instability, a protracted ruling party succession battle and social upheaval.

As Zimbabwe struggles to break with the past and move away from President Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian rule towards democracy, journalists need to witness and unpack the transition through progressive and quality journalism.

The media can be an agent of regression, the status quo or change as it is central to the dynamics of the relationship between governors and the governed.

Media, which influences people’s opinions, attitudes and behaviour as well as their orientations towards politics at individual and structural levels for better or worse, plays a huge role in the interactions between rulers and citizens at micro and macro levels.

It is generally, if not universally, accepted media can shape and influence people’s attitudinal and behavioural patterns towards politics, although this view is being challenged in the new age of Trumpism in the United States.

Zimbabwe is currently going through an important transition; significant in terms of its impact and ramifications as other previous defining moments.

What started as a promising revolution in the mid-1950s had by the mid-1980s effectively degenerated into an elitist project for the liberation aristocracy to rule in the interest of a leader and his cronies who have now crystalised into a predatory cabal or locust social class which has captured and colonised the state, in the process perpetrating devastating ravages with colonial-style rapacity and plunder.

This is what has to change. Transitions, by definition, shift over time; they are not linear. Societies experience varying degrees of instability and upheaval as well as shifts and changes at different stages, rather than a constant trajectory towards democratic change.

This is what has been happening. The current transition has been long-drawn-out. Some say 2017 will be a defining year for Zimbabwe, but that remains to be seen.
Media must play its role in unpacking and explaining events and issues. The role of the media in the process of democratisation has been greatly underestimated, but it is critical.

That is why journalists must seek to engage the transition in a progressive way through serious and credible reporting. This implies shunning embedded journalism; partisan and corrupt coverage currently creeping into newsrooms.

Collectively, the media seems to be lacking the professional and impartial drive to promote ethical reporting and inclusive discourse as it has been sucked into polarised politics and toxic factionalism.

That’s why journalists are now frequently criticised for being too close to political players and failing to manage sources.

This undermines our role as effective watchdogs. Current political reporting is regarded as too opinionated to provide balanced and fair coverage, while commercial pressures often encourage an overemphasis on the interesting and popular at the expense of the serious and that which is of public interest. Sometimes news that is interesting to the public sells compared to news in the public interest.

We need to set the agenda for political debate, offer alternative interpretations of events, and allow different views to contend on our platforms, which should be marketplaces of ideas.

The media must be supportive of democracy, constitutionalism, rule of law, human rights, property rights, ease of doing business and good governance, along with the interests of the poor and underprivileged.

We should not be instruments of factional and sectarian interests; for that will be a great betrayal and disservice to our loyal readers, the public interest and, indeed, democracy itself.