THE recent media shambles regarding President Robert Mugabe’s latest trip to Asia brought into the open two of the terminal maladies feasting at the core of Zimbabwean journalism from the time our national politics became so perilously conflicted and degenerated into a matter of mortal combat instead of a good-natured, if spirited, contestation of ideas between and among compatriots.
Indeed many a veteran colleague rightly felt rather silly when a fairly fit-looking Mugabe emerged from a chartered plane at Harare International Airport on the morning of April 12, defying wide-spread reports [whose propagation many of us wilfully aided] that he was comatose and dying in a Singaporean hospital.
It would be is very easy to plead, in our defence, that the people around Mugabe help create such needless crises because they are not always forthcoming with information; that this embarrassing fiasco could have been avoided had the President’s spokespersons made public the fact he would take advantage of the trip to also enjoy a much-needed family break over the Easter Holiday.
Indeed, Zanu PF officials routinely refuse to speak to the privately-owned media because they ordinarily publish negative material about the party, and that is clearly unhelpful. But that alone cannot be the reason seasoned media operators in Zimbabwe and abroad were quick to lap onto and spread an obscure claim without CHECKING its veracity, even when it became clear that the supposed prophesy by that Nigerian chap possibly referred to Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika.
If we are to be honest with ourselves, we should concede the sad fact that we have clearly taken the embedded journalism of America’s controversial Iraqi wars to a whole new level. This is no longer a case of mere hyperbole for sensational effect which, traditionally, has subsisted on the entirely commercial objective of getting more readers and, with them, increased advertising income.
We now have in the industry practitioners prostituting themselves to political causes. Journalists have wilfully become political activists and, in the process, cast out through the window principles which old school colleagues told us should remain sacrosanct and inviolate. Many of us are no longer reporters but so-called boots-on-the ground cadres for certain political interests, committed cadres who would personally wring Mugabe’s wrinkled neck given the chance.
Where objectivity undermines our desired political ends and the causes of our political overlords, we become creative writers, propagating self-indulgent wishes and outright fiction as fact. The justification is either that we are helping free the weak and vulnerable masses from autocratic regimes or protecting revolutionary democracies from arrogant imperial overreach. In many cases still, it is quite simply a matter of unprincipled professional prostitution; because we are in regular receipt of stashes of cash in brown envelopes.
It is no wonder, therefore, that because Mugabe has been away in Asia for ten days with no-one, apparently, explaining why or when he was due back, we immediately concluded that he must either be dead or dying in some hospital out there. The evidently convenient (politically) presumption is backed with a WikiLeaks report which claimed the Zanu PF leader suffers from advanced cancer and TB Joshua’s supposed prophecy that an elderly African leader would soon kick the bucket.
Nothing can be more disingenuous and ridiculous than the suggestion that the online publication which originated the report was genuinely misled by a senior Zanu PF official. The fact of the matter is that many in the media now serve an agenda that says a good Mugabe is one gone yesterday – wherever and however. You do not go on to sack phantom reporters if they can prove they were genuinely conned by a senior Zanu PF official. In any case, we all know that there are no members of staff to speak of, much less fire; those in the business are aware that online publications are ordinarily a one-or-two-men operation at base, with a few under-cover correspondents back in Zimbabwe.
Again the industry has not been helped by the explosion, over the last few years, of Zimbabwe-focussed news publications on the internet – today’s equivalent of Bakhtin’s grotesque body which has grown to consume the world and is itself voraciously devoured by the same. We have a situation now whereby, attracted by income from Google adverts and the ease with which anyone can set up a website, political activists and all manner of shady characters have, overnight, turned into publishers in a practically lawless virtual world where anything goes because there is no accountability.
The old school types tell us that the role of journalist is to make those in positions of authority and responsibility accountable, but that is the reason they have largely been shunted aside in our newsrooms and “promoted upstairs” to obscure roles. Newly-graduated, young, overeager but malleable charges have since have been promoted in their place because they understand that principle does not pay. They have no problem doing the bidding of politicians so long as they can keep their high-sounding job titles which, of course, come with swanky new wheels and the weekly brown envelope.
Even so, it would of course be naïve to expect today’s journalist to be an “independent, neutral, objective and dispassionate” professional in an environment where media organisations are owned by individuals and or groups of people with interests beyond mere profit. But even as newspapers will necessarily take certain political positions, that does not mean journalists should tell bare-faced lies or pretend that opinion – or their wishes – is fact.
It is one thing to pen an op-ed that says we believe Cde Egypt Dzinemunhenzva is the only person capable of leading Zimbabwe out of its present mire, but quite another to lie on the fellow’s behalf. In any case, even America’s embeds have since admitted that while the practice has “vantage point value, it hardly (gives the) full picture” and that, apart from the risk of inheriting the prejudices and distortions of the side with which we are embedded, “we can’t explain a conflict if we hear from only one side.”
One therefore hopes that, while we clear the egg off our shamed collective faces in the wake of Mugabe’s latest Asia sojourn, we also use the deserved embarrassment to reflect on how we can better protect our integrity and, with it, our covenant of trust with the reading and or viewing public.
Organisations such as the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and related institutions must engage online and other media organisations operating from outside Zimbabwe and find ways of encouraging some form of ethical conduct because abrogation of the same shames us all and harms the credibility of the whole industry.