MAY 3 is World Press Freedom Day and the theme this year was “Journalism Without Fear or Favour”. All around the world, the day was commemorated in many countries by men and women of the profession and society in general.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was among the high-profile people who paid tribute to journalists working under difficult circumstances during an online event alongside Unesco director-general, Audrey Azoulay, and UN commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, journalists and heads of state on May 4. This is more so now during the time of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The event was held with the support of members of the Group of Friends of the Society of Journalists at Unesco. The UN Secretary-General rightly acknowledged the challenges faced by journalists as they risk their lives to get the story out: “Reporters regularly bring to light major cases of corruption and nepotism, human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, sexual and gender-based violence. These reports are crucial in the pursuit of justice, laying the foundations for more detailed investigations that may lead to prosecutions.”
Guterres also shared his experiences in war zones and refugee camps. “I have seen how journalists risk their lives to make sure people’s stories are heard. I could not do my job without the courageous, creative and often deeply moving work of the media.”
The price of our profession
But journalists have been arrested, beaten, kidnapped, maimed and killed across the world. I remember how Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was callously ensnared and killed by suspected state actors. He had been in the process of getting some documents he needed for a marriage he was poised to have with Turkish academic Hatice Cengiz.
The ostensible reason for Khashoggi’s assassination was that he was considered a prominent dissident and critic of Saudi leadership. Khashoggi was a columnist on the Washington Post at the time of his murder by Saudi operatives in October 2018 at the consulate in Turkey.
The Saudi government initially denied involvement and later admitted that he had indeed been killed at the consulate but claimed that the Saudi ruling royal family had not prior knowledge of the plot. A June 2019 report issued by UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard described the murder as a “brutal and premeditated, planned, perpetrated” killing.
The Saudis denied the description, preferring to insist that the death was not planned. The fact that 11 men were later to stand trial in Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s death is ample evidence that the operatives were not acting alone.
Additionally, the fact that some of the high-ranking officials such as Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed al-Asiri implicated in the murder were acquitted stinks.
Those who were convicted and sentenced to death were five junior intelligence officers, namely Fahad Shabib Albalawi, Turki Muserref Alshehri, Waleed Abdullah Alshehri, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb and Salah Mohammed Tubaigy.
Enemies of the state
Personally I find that the most grating aspect of our working lives is the realisation that some elements in authority view those of us who work in the private media to be enemies of the state.
How exactly this works out is mind boggling. For starters, the existential threat to the state cannot be because of a journalist’s pen. When we cover certain stories, for example the reports of self-confessed graft by the government or illicit deals in which the state appears to mortgaging the country’s resources, who is the actual enemy of the state?
A reasonable person must conclude that the kind of behaviour which leads to the mortgaging or dissipation of the country’s resources or the future of our children is the actual enemy of the state. The struggle for this country’s Independence came at the cost of the blood of many of our people. The promise was that Zimbabwe would be a land flowing with milk and honey for all.
As things stand, we have a situation in which citizens who dare complain or in our case highlight the excesses of the regime are brutalised and hounded by state actors. The country and its government, by the way, came into power on the back of a mass-supported war and geopolitical interventions.
The people need information and the world needs to know how far the Independence project is doing 40 years down the line. Was removing Ian Smith worth it after all? What indeed has been the difference between white face and black face on our political stage?
Killing journalists is not tantamount to killing narratives. The story of our country’s history carries the blot of state-sponsored violence. We could have done better as a people. Power retention is apparently the most esteemed good of our ruling class.
As we commemorated Press Freedom Day globally, we are aware that 57 journalists were killed around the world. Societies must pay the price of our murders and, as Guterres has noted, no democracy thrives without press freedom which he says is the “cornerstone of trust between people and their institutions”.
It is for me a matter of willpower for our government to divert their energies toward actual work of building this country up and allowing that contestation of ideas to blossom. Not every critic of government is a member of the opposition party. Not every person who points out the looting and carnage is out to overthrow the state. They just happen to be patriots.
Patriots are not necessarily card-carrying members of the ruling party. Journalists attend many a press conference by politicians. They always listen for the story and it does not always come out as intended by those who want to relay what they consider important. But that is the nature of the job.
I listened to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s Independence and May Day addresses and I marveled. Through it all, attribution for the country’s economic challenges was directed at extraneous factors such as sanctions and drought.
I am waiting for the day the addresses will really home in on what the ruling class itself is doing to direct its energies away from podiums and grandstands to actual programmes such as investing resources into research and development (including capacitating institutions such as the Scientific and Industrial Research and Development Centre).
For now, television appearances and briefings about what must be done are just seen as merely managing optics. I should know because I am one of the journalists who attended the Health minister Obadiah Moyo’s press conference in Bulawayo in February where he, with a bold face, assured all in attendance that the country was ready to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Would calling out the Health minister on that obvious lie amount to an attack on the state or a desire to see it collapse?