By Kenneth Matimaire
MEDIA practitioners in Zimbabwe have pleaded with government to decentralise coronavirus data and information in order to improve access and dissemination of information on the virus.
The appeal was made by journalists from various media houses following a nationwide consultation process.
The exercise is being spearheaded by a consortium of media-based institutions such as the Media Alliance Zimbabwe (MAZ), Zimbabwe Editors Forum (ZINEF) and Voluntary Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ).
The team sort to assess the operating environment since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, ascertain how the pandemic has been reported and areas in which such reportage could be improved.
Engagements have already been conducted with members of the Fourth Estate in Midlands, Masvingo, Manicaland and Bulawayo Metropolitan provinces.
MAZ coordinator Nigel Nyamutumbu said three key issues emerged from the nationwide consultative exercise.
“Three main issues emerged. One, the need to decentralise information. The Covid-19 story has largely been made national, which has been inhibiting journalists from within the provinces from accessing Covid-19 statistics on time.
“It has (also) been inhibiting them from accessing even sources that could comment authoritatively on the Covid-19 story as most within provinces were directing inquiries to the national office, even in stories that would relate to a particular province,” said Nyamutumbu.
During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, provinces and cities were able to issue daily updates on infections, deaths, hotspots to the number of incoming travellers and their countries of origin, which was more effective.
Health officials were also forthcoming to share their expertise on the pandemic, before government moved in to centralise information dissemination, which has created serious bureaucratic challenges.
Nyamutumbu indicated that media practitioners from the various provinces urged government to address the bottlenecks.
“There is also the need for health experts to be more forthcoming as so far as packaging the Covid-19 story. There has been a lot of officialdom where predominately, the government officials have been taking centre stage in distilling Covid-19 information at the expense of medical experts from within the country or provinces who could be doing research on the pandemic or that have first-hand experience,” he said.
Nyamutumbu said the second most important issue that was raised revolves around the safety of journalists as there is need for adequate PPEs to protect them against the virus and further security against arbitrary harassment, detentions and arrests from members of the security services.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe reported that a total of 52 violations against media workers, including journalists, vendors and media interns were recorded in 2020.
Though the detentions, harassments and arrests dwindled this year, journalists implored government to ensure that deployed security personnel respect media practitioners on duty.
“Many were victims of the brutality of security officers, and it is imperative that justice is taken against perpetrators to ensure that the media is duly protected to carry out its mandated duties,” said Mutare based freelance journalist, Sydney Saize.
Sydney Saize was allegedly detained and harassed by members of the security forces before he was released without charge last year in Chimanimani while investigating cases of looting of Covid-19 food handouts.
The matter is currently before the courts.
Nyamutumbu said capacity building of journalists was the third most key areas as there was need to equip journalists with the new trend of data journalism to be able to distill the Covid-19 data centric story.