What is the state of play in the Zimbabwean media landscape? Which are the most influential media publications in the country that are shaping the narratives around the topical issues in this country?
I will say that it depends on who you read. For some it will be our own Zimbabwe Independent along with the sister papers NewsDay, the Standard and Southern Eye. For others, it will be state-controlled rags such as the ones you know. For others it will be social media and, specifically, individuals such as Alex Magaisa with his Big Saturday Read, just to mention a few. Stay with me.
Society and truth
On one of the new media groups of which I am a part of, someone posted about workers at Zambia’s state-owned Times of Zambia, who were suspended over their protest on behalf of workers who have gone for 10 months without pay.
“The problem started when government said government-owned Newspapers should be raising enough money to pay themselves. This has really become hard for them, knowing very well that Newspapers, especially government owned are not easy to sell. We feel for these people,” one of the group members wrote. It got me thinking. What, indeed, is the role of a journalist in society? Are we as expendable as seems to be the case? Yes you have your social media and you may actually believe that you do not need our mediation. Really?
History of journalism
Journalism dates back to the 1400s, though it blossomed in the 1600s with the invention of the printing press in Germany. Newspapers began to proliferate, keeping the public informed on events around them. Soon enough, political pamphlets found their way into the streets of Europe and soon the United States. As societies became more literate, journalism benefitted from increased numbers of readers. Political interest also grew in tandem because it was recognised that journalism was shaping the discourse.
US president Ben Franklin ran the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1728. The US had 234 newspapers by the 1800s and political parties tussled on the pages of newspapers!
To date, in the 21st century, we have experienced a seismic shift with the World Wide Web. News is easily accessible and it does seem that journalists can be discarded. But that is thankfully not true. I will explain why when I have time. Suffice to say that journalists tend to be guided by ethics and the Internet is not beholden to anyone.
The profession itself is fraught with dangers and life-threatening scenarios because getting the facts out is not always in the interests of the rich and powerful. People with dark deeds tend to hide from the glare of media scrutiny. In this vein, a colleague posed the question about media capture, which again got me thinking. Is there a “free” media outlet out there? Free from what?
Calling the tune
Global media landscape is in my view controlled by about six major oligopolies, including the one owned by Rupert Murdoch and, of course, their tributaries feeding into these same monolithic corporates toeing a certain political agenda. I refer here to the likes of Sky News, Fox, CNN, and Washington Post. Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon owns Washington Post and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim owns the New York Times and they have journalists working for them.
I suppose when you think about it, there is a “tacit agreement” in societies albeit an assumed one, that the “mass media” as a monolithic entity somehow “belongs” to the public or society at large.
This is not the case. Maybe the reason is because the media is implicitly entrusted as the vanguard of society and even truth-telling and that truth or facts is a sort of public good which may not be tampered with by those with nefarious or subversive intent.
Or that “truth” should not be tampered with by a predatory few chasing an agenda running contrary to popular expectations. The question arises as to where to locate the profession from an ethical and existential standpoint. This question is further compounded by the spectre of economic viability and business collapse. What business models can journalists and media owners design to sustain operations in the digital age and what are their Faustian bargains? Who is willing to pay for media content and how much?
The question of “capture” is especially pertinent in a fractious socio-political arena. It is, however, more of a semantic exercise. The term “capture” subsumes previous ownership by some other person or entity.
To whom did it (media) ever belong to if not to the person or special interest that set up the company that publishes the newspaper or magazine or radio station?
Therefore, the term capture is problematic just because it “burdens” us with “unrealistic” expectations. In my view, the world is a plantation upon which we are all slave owned.
Special interest groups are always wrestling over public goods. The powerful rise and try to seize opportunities and, soon enough, stakeholders rightly feel betrayed because of the initial trust in the credibility of the media “vehicle”.
In the end, if one considers the foregoing, what Bezos and company did is to consolidate their positions of power. Yes, it is the political economy that weighs more heavily in the end. What do we do with the knowledge or how we push back against the giants is our introspection. The solution, my friends, is not blowing in the wind. All hope is not lost.