Media freedom and responsibility

Reason Wafawarova on Monday
The question of media responsibility attracts a very easy answer: the responsibility of the journalist, or that of any decent person, is to tell the truth. But we are in this age of the Internet and the social media craze, where anyone can, from nowhere, proclaim to be a reporter or a publisher. The traditional meaning of the media now carries a rather narrow meaning.

There are three aspects that come with the moral imperative expected of decent journalism, or intellectual responsibility in general; telling the truth as best as one can, reporting on things that matter, and targeting the right audience.

It is not easy to comprehensively define each of these three key aspects, and the dimensions of each of them are not few, including aesthetic ones.

It is often hard to abide by the responsibility to adhere to truth. Apart from the recklessness of lousy journalism where excitable reporters report fiction and gross gossip as fact, there are more serious constraints to the responsibility to tell the truth.

The truth can be glaringly obvious, yet personally costly for the scribe, particularly for those media practitioners vulnerably exposed to the fangs of power. Even in the so-called free societies, telling the truth can have deadly consequences, and we only need to look at the predicament of Edward Snowden to figure out how dire the cost of truth can become. Recently the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was exposed after its chairman was caught in the midst of an elaborate conspiracy to get rid of a reporter deemed to be unfriendly to politicians in government. The ABC had to get rid of the chairperson to manage public anger on the matter.

In totalitarian states the cost can be severe, and there are numerous examples where truth tellers have either been eliminated or forced into exile.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was recently killed and mutilated in the Saudi embassy in Turkey because his killers wanted him to pay by his life for his style of reporting. The global outrage has hardly moved the Saudi government after the murder.

However, not every dissident reporter is a victim of telling the truth – some are victims of their own fabrications, and we are not talking of these. But even liars have rights too. No one should be killed because they have told a lie.

The misimpression that reporting on corruption in Zimbabwe’s public sector is tantamount to undermining the ruling party is not just a result of scare tactics coming from powerful elites in fear of possible exposure, but a reality of the dangerous impediments that come with pursuing the truth on matters related to the State. We hope this dispensation will allow media scrutiny in matters related to suspected cases of corruption.

When Elton Mangoma tabled written questions before Morgan Tsvangirai in April 2014, the questions were deemed so unpalatable and unacceptable that thugs loyal to the late MDC-T leader immediately decided to bash Mangoma in broad daylight, leading to the party’s second major split since 2005.

If a mere opposition leader can have at his disposal thugs to punish those who tell the inconvenient truth, one wonders what would become of those telling such truth under circumstances where the same leader would be in charge of State power. Tsvangirai’s successor has the deadly vanguard at his disposal, and this militia has already dealt heavy blows to people perceived to be in the way of Nelson Chamisa’s ambitions.

The media must be above these devices and this culture where the powerful are protected from inappropriate facts.

We cannot avoid truth about corruption in the name of protecting the reputation of politicians, or that of the parties to which they belong. Neither can we avoid the truth about a dysfunctional opposition led by a failed and hopeless character because we want to protect the legacy of the so-called struggle for democracy.

Any writer worthy the name must know the difference between blind loyalty and patriotism, as well as that between contumacious support and principle.

It is fair enough to be an uncompromising adherent of the principle of democracy, but such adherence should never be confused with obstinate defence of failed political leaders.

Let us turn to the second part of moral imperative in media responsibility: determining what matters. The moral dimension of our lives often drives us to what matters in our daily lives – the quest for justice, peace, happiness, dignity and so on and so forth.

Noam Chomsky writes: “The responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them.”

Our responsibility as writers must be towards the moral expectation of our audience – not exactly an act of appeasement carried with the intent to impress those in power or authority. But how many writers are out there dying to impress those in power? And how many politicians are out there genuinely expecting the media personnel to behave like their subordinates?

Sometimes the shoddiness of reports done by journalists out to impress political authority does not even rise to the level of nonsense, and is unfortunate that such duress is allowed to prevail in newsrooms.

We are all angry because we know there are insolent rogues out there fuelling the foreign currency black market, and engaging in other corrupt activities.

But this kind of anger must not lead us to celebrate mediocre efforts, or elevate sensationalism to levels of investigative journalism. The magnitude of confusion that has been created around the issue of corruption is unmistakably huge, but surely our media could do better in adhering to reporting the truth as opposed to this hyperbole dished out to the public in the guise of news.

The media must always come across as a moral agent, not as a monster, and this must define the person and character of every journalist. It now appears like the standard practice of the intellectual communities to which the media belongs rejects the elementary moral principle with fervour and passion – sometimes shamelessly fronting the partisan interests of powerful elites or politicians.

We know very well how Western mainstream media would in the past hardly ever report on something like the demise of the MDC; but would fervently magnify to high heavens any mishap, real or imagined, in a perceived enemy organisation like ZANU-PF under Robert Mugabe.

We know how in the late 1970s Cambodia and East Timor faced atrocities, the former attributed to the rule of Communist revolutionary Pol Pot, and the later attributed to the rule of General Suharto in Indonesia.

Through Western media, the crimes against humanity in Cambodia became the very symbol of evil, placed alongside those of Hitler and Stalin, but the Western-backed Suharto’s crimes against the Timorese people stand in history as no symbol of evil, and there is no blot on the Western record, just like there is none whatsoever after the 2011 Libyan atrocities.

There is hardly any blot over the barbarous killing of Khashoggi either, because so many British jobs are reliant on the murderous Saudi regime.

We have for some time pointed out to the hypocrisy of the West, but we must of necessity assess our own internal systems within our own scope of the local political landscape, and we must carry out an honest appraisal of where we morally stand. We have our various media taking sides with political parties across the divide, or unashamedly turning a blind eye to the errors of their favoured side, while exaggerating those of the unwanted party.

In Zimbabwe the pattern is so striking that it would take considerable talent not to notice it. One cannot avoid drawing certain conclusions from the whole scam. Perhaps tribute must be paid to our educational system for conferring on our journalists the talent to please our politicians with such impressive excellence.

Let us look at the third part of the moral imperative in intellectual responsibility: the audience. There is no doubt that the audience is chosen on the basis that it deserves to know the truth, something commonly referred to as public interest in journalistic lexicon. But, more importantly, the audience needs to be enlightened in a way that will allow for action on its part – action that will help relieve suffering and distress.

When we write commentary on corruption we are not necessarily talking to power but to the people, and the view is not to impress readers with velvety English superlatives. Rather we aim to provide the reader with a platform for action – and we hope the reader can through that action relieve society of the burden of corruption. As writers we are opinion makers, not propagandists at the service of irresponsible politicians.

Those of us who write to “speak truth to power” have an entirely wrong audience, and the effort is no more than an infantile form of self-indulgence.

It is just a waste of time and a pointless pursuit to try and speak truth to a corrupt politician, or anyone who exercises power in abused government institutions – truth that for the most part they already know but choose to ignore. What more truth is there to speak about corruption that anyone at the RBZ or ZIMRA does not know already?

If any of these people in power corridors dissociate themselves from the institutional setting of their designation and become human beings once again, becoming moral agents, then indeed we can count on them among the right audience we must address.

But that cannot be done successfully when these people are still corrupt in their institutional roles, as people who wield power. In such roles they are hardly worthy addressing, any more than it is worthy to address the worst of criminals and druglords, who are also human beings, regardless of however terrible their deeds are.

Any writer must be like the good natural teacher who speaks with, and not to his audience. We must view our readers as a community of common concerns in which we hope to participate alongside everyone else in constructively building our society.

Our media entities have no problem applying the moral principle, just that the principle is often selectively applied to official enemies, whether these be the loathed imperialists, the “treacherous” opposition parties, or the “junta” ruling party.

In early 2014 the then EU ambassador to Zimbabwe described some local civic organisations as AGOs – Anti-Governmental Organisations.

This was after he had realised that these NGOs were obsessed with irrational criticism of the ZANU-PF Government – applying so harshly the moral standard on the party without doing the same to all other political forces in the country – some of which were clearly far worse than ZANU-PF in lacking moral principles.

We cannot build a society where the media resorts to a warped value system where the intellectual is to serve power interests: to record in despicable terms the terrible shortcomings of designated enemies, and to conceal or prettify the sins of chosen power centres and their politicians.

It is bad enough that politicians often lie both to us and to the media, and it becomes something of a catastrophe when the politicians acquire the privilege to lie through the media.

Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!!

Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in Sydney, Australia.