There has been considerable interest in my interview on South African public broadcaster, SABC, aired at the weekend.
I appeared with Hopewell Chin’ono, as we discussed the state of media in Zimbabwe on the occasion of Independence Day.
The programme was pre-recorded on Friday. Interestingly, after the session, Chin’ono took to Twitter and billed it as a “tell-all” expose in which I would spill the beans of what State media journalists “were forced to do and by whom”. I chuckled.
Not unexpectedly, interest in the programme shot up from that moment until, and after, it was aired.
I am a former editor at The Herald (Political, Deputy and Acting) and was kicked out in the evening on October 28, 2019.
My removal from my former position has continued to excite animated debate nearly two years on and dozens of stories continue to be written about it.
Further, some figures have asked me to write a book “as an insider” of how State media operates – or something that – and at academic level it would constitute an autoethnography of sorts.
I have never complained much about it, myself.
In fact, I have often laughed at the speculation around the incident, especially Professor Jonathan Moyo’s tragicomic reconstruction of the night, as he included incredible details about how I enlisted the services of Information Permanent Secretary Nick Mangwana, Minister Monica Mutsvangwa, Director General of the Central Intelligence Organisation, Isaac Moyo and the First Lady of the Republic, Auxillia Mnangagwa.
None of the above is true, of course. I’m sure one and all of the named individuals would have had the utmost pleasure to assist. But I simply did not ask.
And it would have been weirdest of me to reach out to “Amai” Auxillia Mnangagwa to save my job when, in fact, she would have been happier to see me out of it.
I have shared glimpses of experiences and relationships with her on my personal social media spaces before.
During the SABC programme on Sunday, I repeated some of them – but that was hardly anything new or epiphanic. Not even Mrs Mnangagwa would be surprised I did.
I say so because, not least, when I had nasty encounters with her on the phone and the instance of our meeting at her offices at Zimbabwe House, she was fully aware that a story would be recorded for the public one day.
She simply did not care.
It has actually inspired me to write a short story titled, The First Lady, which I will publish soon as part of a collection of seven.
But I am not going to dwell on this.
There are two important things that have stemmed from the public’s reaction to my interview.
Climate of fear
First, there is a climate of fear prevailing in Zimbabwe.
I was taken aback by the sheer number of calls from concerned friends, colleagues and relatives who asked whether, “this was safe”.
The implication is that I could be harmed by Mrs Mnangagwa or her agents. Or, more sinister, the agents of her powerful husband, the President.
The other fear was I could be framed and thrown into prison. The experiences of Hopewell Chin’ono have been chilling enough to scare the living hell out of journalists and their loved ones. Some people have accused me of being “reckless, stupid and immature”.
I do not take these concerns lightly. However, I have never been fearful of the worst prospects: in an increasingly repressive State like ours, suffering at the hands of Government and its agents is something journalists and dissenters are likely to face.
While I believe that I neither have committed a crime nor have skeletons that could tumble from the closet, I try to condition my mind and body for that one bad day that might come.
Now, it is shocking that there is such a climate of fear 41 years into Zimbabwe’s Independence and four into the New Dispensation of President Mnangagwa.
It is truly shameful that the latter has failed to guarantee freedoms, rights and security of persons under his watch.
In a reformed, democratic and open society that Mnangagwa promised not long ago, a journalist sharing a few bad experiences at the hands of a President would not have any reason to fear. Nor mothers of his children to worry about the safety of their father.
Journalism under threat
I spent over 12 years at State media – the only place I worked in my younger life and became Political Editor at the age of just 29 years. Three days before my 33rd birthday, I was appointed Deputy Editor and two months down the line I was Acting Editor.
My rise, by Zimbabwean standards, was pretty steep, but not unmerited, especially in an industry so thin on talent and creativity.
And certainly, I was not an outsider or upstart that some would believe, having spent almost a third of my life there.
And within the period, I learnt so many things about the internal and external dynamics of the profession as well as State media itself.
It would be preposterous for me to even suggest that Mrs Mnangagwa’s interference was the only form of outside pressure I faced.
Being a State media editor in Zimbabwe has meant that one is more accountable to politicians outside the building than executives and senior managers within.
In the past four decades, peaking in the 2000s, interference by Ministers and Permanent Secretaries has been somewhat of an unwritten rule where editors sometimes literally read out stories to political principals for approval.
But a different atmosphere existed under Monica Mutsvangwa and Nick Mangwana, characterised by a markedly less interference and a new world of collegiality.
Mutsvangwa and Mangwana’s collegiality has extended to the media sector in general where stakeholders have welcomed their openness, rationality and grace – even when they still manage the hegemonic project and authoritarian consolidation for Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF.
In this light, Mrs Mnangagwa’s interference, including through the Permanent Secretary himself, was truly remarkable.
This brings me to the second compelling issue of this discussion. My interview on SABC took place within the context of analysing media and the meaning of Independence. I spoke as a former State media editor, a practising journalist and aspiring media academic.
On many levels, the interference of Mrs Mnangagwa in the operations of State media by dictating editorial decisions is a shocking reversal to freedoms that Independence should have brought.
It is an attack on freedom of expression and media – a threat go the profession.
Mrs Mnangagwa’s meddlesome behaviour is worse than anything we have seen before: the President’s stories are themselves debriefed, written and published without a fuss.
Editors freely choose the pictures to accompany the story or stories. Editors cut, combine or leave certain details of the President’s as they choose upon their good judgment.
Except in the case of a poor editor who was fired for putting the President’s picture on Page 2, there are rare cases of Mnangagwa’s Presidential anger or interference.
Not that editors get it right all the time to the extent that they work for Government mouthpieces.
Mrs Mnangagwa’s meddlesome behaviour is caused by what appears to be a low self-esteem and insecurity.
That I spoke about it, hardly benefits me.
It benefits young talented journalists who are bullied and made to cry in the field while covering the First Lady.
It benefits State media editors, present and future, who have to do their work without fear or favour and enjoy the freedom to exercise their professional judgment on materials that land on their desks.
Covering the “philanthropic” work of the First Lady should be an enjoyable experience rather than the present case where our journalists are always afraid and sometimes made to account for the decisions of their managers back in the office over editing, layout and presentation of previous stories.
Female journalists must be happy to associate with the First Lady and not demeaned for how they look or dress.
Editors must be able to stand up to Mrs Mnangagwa, and those that will come after her, and tell her that they are professionals and know what to do for the benefit of the readers, who should be the principal interest.
Exercising that carte blanche is not being a sellout, a member of the opposition or “snake in the carpet”, as Mrs Mnangagwa once described me.
Making informed editorial decisions should not be a cause to be wrongly accused of being arrogant or, at worst being a sex pest in the newsroom – itself a grievous threat.
Unfortunately, there is little cover or protection for our journalists at State media.
The best that those with power to call out the abuses can do is to advise editors “to manage” the First Lady. They, too, fear for their jobs.
It is such as sad state of affairs!
That said, Mrs Mnangagwa did not cause my removal from State media, and may have been equally surprised when I was.
Many assume it to be the case. Wrongly.
Again, this piece is not about “telling all” or “spilling the beans”.
It is about confronting challenges that state media journalists and editors face everyday – from just one quarter.
Tichaona Zindoga is former at the State-controlled Herald newspaper and now Head of Content with Review & Mail. Follow him on Twitter @TichZindoga and @mail_review