By Takura Zhangazha*
The Minister of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services, Professor Jonathan Moyo is evidently in a good place with the media. Apart from having it under his ministerial purview, he also has the luxury of having it at his beck and call.
Only this week he summoned editors and other media stakeholders to his office. Apparently it was to sort of read a mini-riot act to the press for covering issues that he feels are not accurate. Or at least are not in the interests of his party or its leadership.
It was said that at this particular meeting he took umbrage with the Newsday for publishing a story based on a MISA-Zimbabwe statement that became the basis of a story that appeared in the Newsday. In the statement MISA Zimbabwe had expressed its concern over comments attributed to Zanu Pf leaders on the private media.
Apparently Moyo disagreed with not only the statement but also the fact that it was then covered in the mainstream media.
Obviously there were a number of options for the minister to put across his point to the media. These would have included writing a letter to the editor of the Newsday, held a press conference to deny MISA Zimbabwe’s assertions or to approach the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe for redress.
The minister chose instead to summon the media and related stakeholders to his office. A move which demonstrated his evident hold on the media. He can summon seasoned and busy journalists to a meeting in which he has no big policy pronouncement but some stern words on the basis of what he views as unfavourable media content.
That he can do this is in itself dangerous for the freedom of the media as well as the editorial independence of both state and private media houses.
Perhaps it is because he has distributed some sort of largesse via the rather mute Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) that has made the media more pliable to his demands. Or it could be that he is under pressure from his superiors to rein in the media’s reportage of Zanu PFs succession politics.
Either way, this does not bode well for the media’s independence from political interference. Especially where ministers seek to remind the same that they are in overall charge of whatever ‘freedom’ they may be enjoying at present.
In all of this, there are a number of issues that the media must take up with greater urgency. First is that the media must be much more cautious in its engagement with minister Moyo. It is not employed by him or by government directly and therefore, save for when he wants to make policy announcements, it must deliberately avoid being treated like children.
Secondly, the media must defend its editorial independence to the hilt. It does not have to justify its editorial decisions to arbitrary authority. Nor should it tolerate having a government minister read it some sort of riot act over a story that he found unfavourable to his political party’s interest.
Thirdly, there is need for solidarity and depolarisation of the media to be based not on political opportunism but on democratic values and principle. While government can extend olive branches, these should be taken from the firm placement of media freedom and editorial independence as key measurements of sincerity. That Moyo chose to attack a media institution and an editorial decision should be evidence enough to justify dealing with his ministry with scepticism and abundant caution.
Fourthly, the dire economic circumstances affecting the print media industry should not cloud the continued need for editorial independence of newspapers and journalists. The relationship between editors and their publishers should be re-examined with an intention of ensuring that the pursuit of profit does not impede the public interest role of the press. Because Moyo is at the height of his influence over the media, publishers have been keen on not upsetting him or the ruling party, This to the extent of ensuring that their papers do not write stories that may upset the potential apple cart of multiple media house ownership (print, radio and television).
In considering all of these issues, Zimbabwe’s media must protect its fourth estate role much more concertedly and without having to wait for the blessing of cabinet ministers.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)