THE Zimbabwean media has been on a feeding frenzy of late. It reminds me of the English literature exam passage that nearly cost me an A in the subject. It described how the most voracious fish known to man, the piranha of the Amazon, would go through its pray in seconds flat after being attracted by the slightest taste of blood in the water.
The phenomenon described in such graphic detail places our media in the same league. Stories that have dominated the headlines in the last month or so could have under normal circumstances passed off as fiction. But for the lack of sensational news, scribes seem to have thrown objectivity out of the window and have fallen for the oldest trick in the Fourth Estate: swallowing the bait hook, line and sinker.
Let us put this in the proper context and perhaps a short lesson on rumour mongering will suffice. In my dealings with members of the human species, I have learnt to take statements that begin with the words; “Have you heard the latest …?” with a pinch of salt. But for an industry that relies on ruse for its fodder, it is difficult to brush them aside, especially if they have the potential of turning out to be true.
Take note that the issue here has nothing to do with authenticity or veracity but rather, who has the balls to go to press with it and win bragging rights or be condemned if it were not true. It’s a risk many editors are wont to take in their miserable vocation of wading through the muck that life throws at you.
For centuries, rumours have been used to destroy individuals and nations with chilling effect. Who does not know that devious political opponents have been known to go fishing for damning evidence to discredit their adversaries? This is then conveniently leaked to the press, who would of course have a field day.
Zanu PF has over the years used the advantage of incumbency to employ this tool to demoralise and to discredit the opposition. Many a sting operation come to mind it would take another article to list them down. So it’s nothing new to them when they cook a story or place cameras in the most unlikely of positions to obtain the ultimate juicy story that the sensationalist media can get their hands on.
Runours have been known by many euphemisms in different places by different people. In Shona they are “makuhwa” and the Ndebele equivalent is “inzwabethi” which is the literal translation of “hear-say.” Which reminds me of a story…
A Ndebele teacher instructed her eager Form One class to write an essay which included the word “inzwabethi”. One of her star pupils handed over a masterpiece which included the following statement: “Umfazi uthe ezama ukuquma egangeni, inzwabethi yamenzani kanti!”
That roughly translates to: “When the woman ventured into the bush, she was severely attacked by a rumour!” This goes to show that rumours, when placed strategically, can be very dangerous. That is not to overlook the fact that our budding writer did not have a clue of what he was writing about.
Whether you choose to refer to rumours by the politically-correct term of the “grapevine”, or what we used to call ZIANA with no apologies whatsoever to the national news agency, or even the Nigerian “pavement radio” to the classic Corridor News Network – CNN, they all point to the same thing.
It is said that if a rumour persists for more than 48 hours, it is likely to be true. In the media world, it is known as the “no smoke without fire” rule. Editors, being the ultimate in news hounds, will send reporters to follow the trail laid out until it leads to nowhere.
However, creative journalists, craving for their one minute of fame, tend to stretch things a bit by adding a bit of action to what would be essentially a dead horse that’s not worth flogging. This is the stuff corruption is made of. A few well-paced dollars and you can have a breaking story that is bound to break somebody’s reputation.
A lawyer friend put it this way: “The informal news network is the direct result of the lack of transparency in both the public and private sectors. Stifling bureaucracy has put a stranglehold on information which normally should be freely available to the public.”
This takes us to another angle in this debate based on unconfirmed statistics that 70 percent of the rumours originate from the government enclave. The culture of secrecy originating from the days of the war and moribund legislation such as the Official Secret Act have put a gag on an institution that by its very nature demands that information with a bearing on issues of governance of the country should be in the public domain.
The law only allows for officials to respond to requests brought to them in writing and with no time limits. This places reporters in an invidious position as they have to meet print deadlines set in concrete … well, sort of. The result is an information gap so wide you can drive the President’s convoy through it.
That gap, if left open is easily filled with all sorts of speculation and innuendo — some of it originating from the same officials if not for malicious reasons. When the rumours hit a dead end, like a libel suit, there would be no-one to retract them or to sue because after all they were just rumour.
However, what worries me is when officials begin to trust the grapevine to the extent that when it comes to disseminating information, they use it to shape the opinions of workers and the public at large. In other words, rumour becomes the official news channel. We might as well tag it the Informal News Network – INN. That would clear all the confusion surrounding official sources or unofficial ones, reliable sources or sources that are “highly placed” but are too afraid to come out into the open.
The solution to all this is to have the Department of Information do what they should be doing. Instead of the paranoid control of information, they should ensure that government is as transparent as possible. Then they would not have to humiliate cabinet ministers by passing them through embarrassing body searches.
The reason cabinet meetings leak like a sieve is that there is a stranglehold on information in the first place. Decisions they make have a bearing on people’s lives and as such they have every right to know.
Back to the start: why the sudden outbreak of scandals in Harare? Well it works this way: Zanu PF has been severely tested by the rumour (until it is verified) about the so-called infidelity of the Governor of the Reserve Bank, Gideon Gono, who is romantically-linked to President Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
The reason the rumour mill in Harare is so lucrative, is that apart from the centralised nature of our government, this is where many of the media houses are also headquartered. You create a commodity and you are likely to get a customer. Try to restrict the commodity, then you create a black market that will ultimately overshadow the official channels.
That is how rumour has turned into the official source of news in Zimbabwe.The advice I would give is ‘take anything that comes out of Harare with a pinch of salt’.