Tuesday, 30 April 2013

“Corruption, Ethics and Professionalism in the Media: The way forward.

 A presentation to the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (ZINEF), Round Table Discussion

Tuesday, April 30, 2013, Quill Club, New Ambassador Hotel, Harare, Zimbabwe.

By Takura Zhangazha (Executive Director,  Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ))

Mr Secretary General and Mr Chairman,

Let me begin by thanking the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum for organizing this round table discussion on ‘Corruption, Ethics and Professionalism in the Media: the way forward’.  The topic is relevant in the context of the fact that in three days time, Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world in commemorating World Press Freedom Day, an important calendar event for all those that remain committed to press freedom,  media professionalism and ethical journalism.

Because this is also a ZUJ event let me also wish members of ZUJ a happy Workers Day tomorrow, May 1 and indicate that I find it most pleasing that the commemorative events of both workers and journalists follow each other so closely on the international calendar. I am sure this may only just be coincidental but all the same, it is important to realize the importance of both labour rights  and freedom of the media as two symbiotic democratic principles that when adequately recognized lead to the establishment of societies where access to information, media freedom and freedom of expression are fully recognized.

In relation to the topic under discussion, Zimbabwe’s media first demonstrated full commitment to seeking the highest possible levels of professionalism and ethics through the VMCZ Media Code of Conduct. This code of conduct was adopted in 2007 by media houses that agreed to its stipulations and after nationwide and multiple stakeholder consultation, with ZUJ playing a key role in its adaptation. This commendable effort by the media stakeholders to establish the VMCZ as an alternative media self regulatory framework was essentially to demonstrate the commitment of journalists and media stakeholders to ethics and professionalism in the way they report issues in the public interest. It was, as it still remains, also done in order to proffer to the state, a regulatory framework that does not criminalize the media profession or cause undue and undemocratic hindrance to the work of journalists through a voluntary media code of conduct.

It is this Media Code of Conduct (MCC) that informs my contribution to this debate.

Issues of corruption and bribery in the media are addressed both broadly and specifically in the MCC. The broad nature of the code of conduct relates to Section 3 where it outlines the following:

3. General standards
a) Media practitioners must maintain the highest professional and ethical standards. They must carry out their functions of informing, educating and entertaining the public professionally and responsibly.
b) Media practitioners must defend the principle of the freedom of the media to freely access, collect and disseminate information and to publish comments and criticisms. They must oppose censorship, suppression of news and the dissemination of propaganda.

And this is an important departure point because we cannot debate this important topic without understanding the agreed to general standards as outlined above. Especially where when regulating itself, the media underscores the importance of the principles of freedom of the media, access to information and the avoidance of working for propagandistic purposes.

This is a succinct departure point from what has informed state regulation of the media, which has unfortunately in the case of Zimbabwe sought to ‘police’ journalists to write for and on behalf of the state not in the best public interest or in order to promote freedom of expression and access to information.  In essence therefore,  the VMCZ media code of conduct is intended to protect the media from not only being corrupt and unethical, but also to guard it against corruptibility by forces that may not intend to act in the best public interest or in tandem with the democratic principles of freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information.

Where it comes to the particularity of the issue of corruption there are specific sections of the code of conduct that relate to matters concerning bribery, inaccuracies and unfairness when journalists cover stories. For example, section 8 of the media code of conduct states,

8. Bribes and inducements
Media practitioners and media institutions must not publish or suppress a report or omit or alter vital facts in that report in return for payment of money or for any other gift or reward

This section is perhaps as brief as it is in order to ensure that there is no ambiguity on the issue it addresses. It must also be read in tandem with internal editorial charters or internal ombudsman rules for various media organizations as they all tend to address it with the seriousness it deserves. Furthermore, it must be understood that in general corruption is unacceptable in any sector of our society and must always be curbed by all and sundry. Where section 8 of the MCC deals with this issue it’s primary focus is on the conduct of media professionals in relation to their work and ethics within the media profession. This section does not purport to deal with the individual and non-journalistic behavior of a media professional. There are other laws for that and essentially, no one is and no one should be above the law on the issue of bribery or corruption.

Mr. Chairman, it is however important that we do not overlook the fact that there are still many challenges over and about the issues of alleged corruption or unethical tendencies in the media profession. And there are many causes for these challenges as well as there are solutions. From my perspective the primary challenge has resided in a repressive media environment where the state seeks to directly control or regulate the media through criminalizing the profession.

Such a culture of impunity against the media has generally led to the media having to self censor and function in a climate of fear which goes against the spirit and letter of Section 3 of the media code of conduct.  It is this repressive environment that has led to the greater extent to a media that then becomes susceptible to any alleged corruption.

Futhermore, the over-bureaucratization of state regulation of the media leads to the latter’s politicization and compromises its integrity and professionalism. A key example as we approach the occurrence of harmonized elections is how the media finds itself under statutory regulation from at least four bodies, namely, the Zimbabwe Media Commission, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe and the Postal and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe. It is a statutory framework that does not promote transparency and accountability and therefore can only be viewed as a breeding ground for corruption and corruptibility of the media. 

This deliberately multiple regulator environment is then further exacerbated by the poor remuneration and working conditions of the media profession. This is in two respects. First it is the low pay and poor working conditions of the journalists in Zimbabwe. Secondly it is in respect to the multiple regulatory frameworks that each media house must adhere to, pay accreditation or a portion of their profits too over and above its statutory obligation to pay corporate tax to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority. This cumbersome regulatory regime has tended to leave the media profession the poorer in a manner that is in reverse proportion to the importance of its role in promoting access to information, freedom of expression all in the public interest. 

This is why the ZUJ initiatives of establishing  national employment councils (NECs) for journalists must continue to be supported both by media professionals at all levels as well as by publishers and other media stakeholders.  Given the fact that I am aware that the ZUJ is an affiliate union of the ZCTU, I would also go further and advise that in thinking on the way forward, there is need to follow the latter’s model of National Economic Consultative Forums where and when it interacted with government and business. In the case of ZUJ however, these would be forums that relate to the media, media owners and publishers in all media forms, i.e print, broadcast and internet based media. This will be a key stepping stone in dealing with issues of conditions of service of journalists as well as their remuneration.

In order to deal with the challenges that the topic under discussion poses, it is my submission Mr Chairman,  that the media profession showed good intentions by establishing the VMCZ and its media code of conduct. And I am certain the good intentions of the media remain. The code of conduct is not an attempt by the media to skirt public accountability. Instead it is an attempt to guarantee it. As with all such initiatives across the globe, there will always be questions and ‘doubting Thomas’ on the issue. Unfortunately the majority of the doubters tend to be those that are in power and are therefore in charge of the implementation of laws that criminalise the media profession.  It is imperative, within the Zimbabwean context, that we understand that the Zimbabwean media has gone out of its way to try and be professional, even prior to the promulgation of AIPPA where in the 1980s there were varied attempts at establishing voluntary media councils. These were and have been stymied by a state that unfortunately and incorrectly regards, media freedom as a privilege and not a fundamental human right. 

The way forward and until the government demonstrates greater sincerity in wishing to address media reforms in a democratic and consultative fashion, is that the media must continue to strive to prove that media self regulation works and that journalists are willing and able to be ethical without being herded like cattle by those that enact laws that criminalize media freedom , freedom of expression and access to information.
Thank you and I wish you all a happy May Day tomorrow and World Press Freedom Day this Friday, May 3 2013. Ends//.