AS Zimbabwe’s three main political parties held out olive branches to each other in the gold-mining town of Kadoma on Monday, months ahead of the 2023 general elections, streets of Harare were ablaze as two of the parties’ supporters ran amok in the capital’s Mbare high-density suburb.
Harare ructions highlighted the tough task ahead for the three political parties, Zanu PF, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) and MDC Alliance to preach peace and tolerance among their supporters who hardly see eye-to -eye.
It only requires a single word from their leaders for the parties’ followers to freak out into political violence. Monday’s events exposed the fragility of any possible truces between the irritable ruling Zanu PF party — in power for the past 42 years — and a restive opposition that has since 2000 battled to prove its governing worth.
As the party leaders, whose organisations currently make up the Zimbabwean Parliament, were trying to create a roadmap to a possibly first ever violence-free plebiscite in years, Zanu PF and CCC activists were fighting for vending spaces in Harare’s oldest suburb of Mbare.
Often caught up in these political power tussles are journalists.
In Zimbabwe, if discussions at the joint Zimbabwe Institute and the Information, Publicity and Broadcasting ministry-organised media and elections workshop in Kadoma on Monday and Tuesday were anything to go by, the journalists in both the public and private media appear to be having it rough all round.
Ironically, all political parties appear agreeable that the members of the Fourth Estate are critical in helping achieve a peaceful 2023 election.
In Kadoma, it became clear that politicians cannot do without journalists, while the latter also depends on the former as key sources of information and news.
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Members of the Fourth Estate are largely playing second fiddle in the country’s governing matrix as watchdogs of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature.
Journalists appear to be so inconsequential and financially incapacitated that they are losing honour and respect to a point of being near subservient to those wielding political power and financial muscle.
Heading into 2023, even standing by the national Constitution, and speak against hate speech, incitement of violence, defamation and breach of privacy as directed in section 61(5) — is proving to be a tough call for journalists who are facing several dilemmas that are compromising their reputation and ability to remain professional and ethical.
Even if they are guided by the national Constitution, in reporting fairly, accurately and in a balanced way, as a law expert and University of Zimbabwe faculty of law dean Innocent Maja suggested at the Kadoma indaba, there is no guarantee or promise that they will be up to the task given their current predicament that is being made worse by contestations, hostilities and pollarisation between the organisations they work for, the government and politicians.
The Kadoma meeting of editors, politicians and government ended without any formal resolutions that would remind those who participated of their obligations, despite the spirited engagements and obvious consensus that (through help from journalists) it was about time Zimbabwe charted a new violence-free course in terms of how it conducts its elections.
“As journalists we must strive for impartial and balanced coverage,” veteran journalist Miriam Masuku contends, but painfully adds: “The challenge arises when you have to contest with the powerful and forceful politician who wants the reports to go their way. (Some) politicians want to tell you how to write a story. . . the forcefulness is problematic, especially during the (election) campaign period.”
She strongly believes that journalists covering elections must, among other things, remain independent of political parties and candidates, must refuse gifts from politicians, be prepared to step aside and refrain from covering stories when their interests are conflicted — this is easier said than done.
“It is on this aspect of integrity that Zimbabwean journalists are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. The dilemmas are real. How do you remain independent when all those around you are politicised. wHow do you refuse a gift, especially financial, when you do not have bus fare to go back home after filing your story. . . and when you are not sure whether you will eat tonight. . . how do you turn down an offer for that? And your own publication has no transport, or the vehicles are there, but there is no fuel, how do you refuse an offer for transport to go to rural areas to cover the rallies there? That is the dilemma. These are some of the ethical issues facing journalists in Zimbabwe today.
“As the elections approach, these are the issues that journalists, media establishments, politicians and government have to grapple with. At the end of the day, voters need to get balanced stories that will enable them to make informed decisions. There is urgent need to address the working conditions and operating environment for journalists in order for Zimbabwean voters to get real value from the media.”
More exposed in this vicious electoral space are female politicians hoping to be elected into national leadership positions and the general population at large who stand to lose in the tussle for dominance by politicians and the struggle by journalists to remain relevant in the national discourse.
Seasoned journalist John Masuku however, believes, despite the myriad of challenges they face, journalists are called to duty to adhere to the code of ethics on covering elections as Zimbabwe heads for the 2023 elections.
“What are our obligations as journalists. . . To be clear about personal and professional. . . roles and responsibilities which are in accordance with local and international standards. . . we should act independently of politicians and we should not expect to be paid for covering them to avoid compromise and protect credibility and professionalism,” Masuku insists.
Whether Zimbabwe journalists are about to cross the rubicon into being swallowed by their own miserable state or are determined to protect their integrity still remain to be seen as the country heads to 2023.