Monday, 11 January 2016

Zim Media and Government's Sticks With Patriotic Carrots Method

 By Takura Zhangazha*

The recent threats to the media issued via the Minister of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services(MIBS) Chris Mushowe are something I am sure every journalist would prefer to wish away as mere politicking.  Not until the permanent secretary to the same ministry, George Charamba also issued an acerbic warning to a journalist via tele-conversation. 

Picking up from where his immediate boss had left off, he told journalist Elias Mambo of the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper that should the media continue to write unfavourable stories about the security services, journalists would find themselves at the country’s infamous Chikurubi maximum security prison. This, he continued,  while government would be searching for the sources of the same said stories.

It is a threat that would obviously have a chilling effect on any professional journalist.  Its implications point to an arbitrary intention to imprison journalists both as punishment and as a way of violating the journalistic principle of protection of sources. 

Some newspaper columnists, writing under pseudonyms, have also added to the intimidating media environment by issuing stark warnings to the private print media.  In these they have made odd metaphorical references to the bible and the baiting of crocodiles. In the process they give the impression that there is inevitability to criminal censure of journalists that write in a manner that government finds unpalatable.

This would also explain the continued use of criminal defamation laws to arrest editors, journalists and in the latest case, even a company secretary of the Alpha Media Holdings company for publishing stories deemed to undermine the security services or viewed as being ‘false’. 

The only surprising element is that these direct threats against the media are occurring within the context of what would have been a new phase for government- media relations in the aftermath of the state sponsored Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) report.  While the latter has its own on-going controversies, it is increasingly evident that it has not been the much anticipated indication of a thawing of frosty relations between government and the mainstream media.

The statements from MIBS offcials  therefore demonstrate a number of intentions that the media should consider with the utmost seriousness.  One being that any sort of honeymoon period for  media-government relations is over. Where the carrot was used in IMPI, from now on it appears the stick will be the engagement method of preference.

This in order to have the effect of indirect control of media content, especially on news that government considers harmful to the national interest.

Furthermore, the eventual intention is to crowd out the private print media through creation of other multimedia platforms. This s already being done in relation to broadcasting licenses (local commercial and eventually community radios), the digitization processes currently underway, government support of independent content producers and continued state subsidies for state media.

Because all of the country’s private print media is struggling to stay afloat, there is the further advantage to government that the former will shrink on its own.  A combination of a debilitating economic environment together with a highly competitive but smaller mainstream media market will leave the private media on the brink of closure. Government will however only step in to give direct assistance if the private media tows the official line in relation to content that is in the ‘national interest’. 

In this context, it is the media that must find new negotiating ground with government that seeks to protect its editorial independence in the face of these emerging and somewhat unexpected political realities.  

The options are few.  They include attempting to come to some sort of agreement on what is ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’ with a currently stubborn government. However this will be a development that would negatively affect the democratic independence of the media. The reality is that this is an issue that will obviously loom large at the announced January 2016 indaba between government and the media.

Alternatively, the media can huddle together and in a demonstration of rare unity, stand its democratic ground by insisting on its right to exist without undue and arbitrary interference from the state. This may not take on a directly confrontational approach but will be based on a principled understanding of the democratic role of the media in our society.  With it will come a number of professional and ethical obligations and implementation frameworks for the media as determined by media stakeholders with input from the state via MIBS. 

And this is the crux of the matter because it is the operational framework f the media and its related content that government appears keen on controlling. Where the media fails to do so independently, the state is very willing to define it anew. Even arbitrarily so, despite the current and looming constitutional court challenges.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)