Burying differences: will the media change their ways?

When George Charamba, permanent secretary of the information ministry, addressed a rare meeting of editors from state-owned and private media last Thursday, I expected his usual vitriol against non-state players.

I thought Mr Charamba’s official address would be a venomous attack on local weeklies, online publications and radio stations like the exiled VOA-Studio 7 (Voice of America), Radio VOP (Voice of the People) and SWRA (Radio Africa), which are very wrongly perceived by government to be western-sponsored “pirate radio stations” with a regime-change agenda.


Building bridges, closing gaps

The UNESCO-organised meeting, aptly billed “Building bridges and closing the gaps: an editors dialogue towards establishing common ground” was historic. Its objective was to end the deep polarisation between Zimbabwe’s media organisations. It was the first time this had ever happened in a decade that witnessed the arrest of several journalists and editors, and the bombing of private media organisations like Daily News and Radio VOP.

The private media have always known that Mr Charamba’s ministry was the mastermind behind their persecution over the years. Government newspapers like The Herald and Chronicle, and broadcaster ZBC brutally attack private and online media with impunity, accusing them of being an extension of the opposition parties and describing them as “MDC mouthpieces” and “Western-sponsored”. Meanwhile, the private media regularly stoop to name calling too, using terms like “state-controlled”, “pro-Mugabe” and “ZANU (PF)-controlled”.

Afraid to return

Although UNESCO invited most editors – whether based inside or outside the country – assuring them of immunity from arrest, most did not dare to take the risk.

However, Geoff Nyarota – award-winning former editor of the banned Daily News and now editor-in-chief of the US-based online publication Zimbabwe Times – did have the courage to turn up and did not regret it.

“I am so glad to be back home after almost seven years. I thank all those who invited me and ensured my safe return.

I now plan to come back home for good and help rebuild my beautiful country and also urge others to do the same,” said an extremely excited Nyarota.

It was refreshing to hear Mr Charamba in an unusual conciliatory mood: “Polarisation is real. We in the ministry acknowledge it. The operating environment has been very harsh. We need to regain peace, don’t we, dear editors?”

Yes, we agree, George. In fact editors and journalists understand each other’s position.

One ‘state’ editor confided: “We in the public media have had no choice but to toe the ZANU (PF) line lest we get kicked out of our jobs for siding with the opposition party. There are spies planted among us just to check on us as editors. Please accept us when we get sacked”.

Despite the absence of a new regulatory body for the press, Mr Charamba, employing his usual intimidating tactics, directly threatened the editor-designate of the upcoming paper Newsday:  “Barnabas, if you start publishing without our registration, you will be in breach of the law. We will go to the police and say there is a foreigner on the street, can you get his credentials.”

RIP media polarisation

Once media polarisation is dead and buried, The Herald, Zimbabwean, The Independent, Financial Gazette and Chronicle will still remain separate entities. However, they could become good neighbours. If the politicians can bury their differences and form a unity government, there is nothing to stop journalists doing the same.

And no more police raids please, we aren’t foreigners, George!