Thursday, 4 May 2017

Critical Minds for Critical Times: Supporting Investigative Journalism in Zimbabwe.

A presentation to the VMCZ  'Bornwell Chakaodza Memorial Lecture' for World Press Freedom Day Week. 
Thursday  4 May 2017
Rainbow Towers Hotel, Harare, Zimbabwe

Cde Chairperson,
Let me begin by thanking you for the invitation to deliver this years World Press Freedom Day Bornwell Chakaodza’s Memorial Lecture.  The global theme, ‘Critical Minds for Critical Times, Media’s Role in Advancing Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies’ is very apt to Zimbabwe’s context.  So too is the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ)  sub theme of  ‘Investigative journalism as an important cornerstone of media professionalism and sustainability in the era of fake news and digital disruptions’.

And I will come to these specific points later on in my presentation.  Let me begin by highlighting why in general I refer to Bornwell and his journalism as having been of a critical and investigative nature beyond his written stories and articles.    And I will use two examples of my own personal interaction with him while I worked for MISA Zimbabwe and when I also worked for this equally respected organisation, the VMCZ.  

In the first, it was in a a meeting that was discussing the formation of a national editors forum convened by MISA Zimbabwe.  Bornwell was one of the editors present in the meeting and apart from one of the participants who had been dozing, waking up from his slumber and accusing Bornwell and some others of ‘waffling’, it was a meeting that progressively led to key strides towards an editors forum being formed.  And I am glad that the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum is still thriving to this day. 

The second incident was one in which Chakaodza chaired was deputy chair of the VMCZ and we had to discuss the possibility of the latter becoming a member of the Zimbabwe Media Commission. That is to wish away its own existence.  Chakaodza while entertaining vigorous debate on the merits and demerits of effectively ending the life of the media’s own self-regulatory body, confided in me that he was firmly against such a move.  In fact he was quite suspicious of it. I am happy to say the majority of  VMCZ board members heeded his advice and decided against such a move.  Hence the council still thrives today. 

These two particular incidents that I cite in relation to the media colleague in whose memory we are gathered here for indicate, in so far as they relate to the 2017 global theme of  ‘critical minds for critical times’ , that Chakaodza was indeed a critical mind for critical times.  Especially where it concerns his defence of independent and vibrant journalism. 

The media landscape in Zimbabwe has however changed rather dramatically since the time of Chakoadza as a journalist.  There have been incremental quantitative changes to the number of media players (owners) in the country.  For both print and electronic media we have had the licensing of private newspapers and national free to air and local commercial radio stations.

These developments have also been within the content of an increase in the number of young Zimbabweans seeking journalism as a profession even if by default.  That is to say, by way of studying for not only the original journalism diploma but also the expanded media and society studies that are now offered by our universities.  On this particular point I would aver that one only needs to cross check the study undertaken by respected journalist, Chris Chinaka on the state of media training institutions and their curricula in 2009 and early 2010.
 
The new constitution, in similar incremental fashion with the quantitative  aspects of the expansion of mainstream media has while guaranteeing media freedom in the bill of rights effectively still maintained that same right as a privilege through its establishment of a constitutional media commission which those that have been around in journalism for a while do not hold in high regard.  Both in its present and past form. 

But the media in part, has to deal the hand that government has dealt it.  And I regrettably sense a significant amount of resignation as that what we have is probably the best we can get. 

It is a resignation that can be found primarily in media owners who know that while the functional environment for relatively independent, objective and fair journalism in the democratic public interest is limited, they can at least make a profit. 

And also that they can treat journalists with the nonchalant neo-liberal labour law regime that all of Zimbabwe’s would be business owners treat their own workers.  Here I make reference to the infamous Zuva judgement that has seen scores of workers being given three months notices and the equivalent amount in salaries in favour of what government and global financial institutions have referred to as the ‘ease of doing business’. 

Simultaneously and largely due to the challenges that come with a lack of sustainability for profit motivated media ownership and news production models, the journalism profession in and of itself has been unable to maintain the necessary professionalism and public confidence that would see it remain respected as a critical arm of the fourth estate.  

In part, journalists who would have been in better professional times, been pre-occupied with serving the same democratic public interest role of reporting freely, fairly, accurately and with balance or as more ideally put, speaking ‘truth to power’  on behalf of at lest the interests of democracy have now been encumbered with basic question of survival.  In this, and I say this with regret, there has been an alarming increase in the allegations of corruption against journalists which again are attributable, as allegations, to the dire state of salaries and benefits for those that work in the media. 

One could easily argue that the evident lack of investigative journalism in Zimbabwe’s context is a global trend and therefore we should accept it as is. 

This is a fair argument for reasons that are now globally recognised by those that work in the media.  And also for reasons that apply to Zimbabwe’s media environment.  These can be listed as the rise the internet as well as social media and its impact on the efficiency/speed  and veracity of news ; the emergence of cross media owning oligarchs; the perpetuation of government control and repression of the media even in the age of the internet  with shutdowns as was recently the case in significant parts of Cameroon. 

But were it not for  critical minds in these critical times we would all give up and not fight back against what is a seemingly rational explanation for the decline in influence of the mainstream media n our pursuit of more democratic and, equal, inclusive and peaceful societies. 

And where we consider the sub theme of this year’s Chakaodza memorial lecture, ‘Investigative journalism as an important cornerstone of media professionalism and sustainability’ it is important to understand that this can only occur where we have not only critical minds in journalism but also an organic and democratic public respect  and support for the work of journalists.

Because investigative journalism is both difficult and largely long term reporting it requires that its practitioners be committed to serving the democratic public interest of news gathering. 
And for this I will turn to the globally respected Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) mission to illustrate the importance of this particular point.  It states in part,
We pursue in-depth investigative journalism to inform the public, with no corporate or political agenda. Through fact-based, unbiased reporting, we expose systemic wrongs, counter misinformation and spark change.
Our journalists dig deep, and will spend months getting to the truth if that’s what it takes. Once our investigations are complete, we give them to mainstream media outlets around the world, so they are seen by as many people as possible.
The motivation is also similar with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) that successfully investigated offshore tax havens that we now refer to as the Panama Papers who state on their website,

The need for such an organization has never been greater. Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government.
The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most.
In Zimbabwe we have the VMCZ’s own Investigative Journalism Fund that has its aim the promotion of in depth, public interest and quality reporting in the country. 

In all of these examples that I cite the primary motivation of the consortiums and collaborations for investigative journalism is that the people involved are not only committed to it but are also conscious of the democratic importance of speaking truth to power.  Even if it takes longer than a tweet or facebook post.  And even if it involves the very same large corporations/ monopolies that straddle ownership of the internet. 

Such firm conviction grounded in democratic values and appreciation  of the media’s role in society are what make investigative journalism lay the base for media sustainability.  Without these values, we would fall victim to what is now referred to as ‘fake news’ or deceptive celebrity culture that affects politics and power to the extent that it has done in parts of the global north where the rise of the ultra right is in vogue.  

The sustainability then stems from public support in various forms, donations, sales and also respect. What this requires is public trust and legitimacy of the media and its important work in advancing democratic interests and values.    

Investigative journalism therefore brings with it necessary revision of media ownership and business models that though functioning in an environment where we have emerging media monopolies in Zimbabwe, are yet to be fully tried. 

I do not know of a current Zimbabwean media house that has asked for donations from its own readers as a new approach to mitigate the harsh economic environment.  Or alternatively asked the same readers to, as the globally respected Guardian newspaper does,  become members of the newspaper without being its actual reporters.  To do this requires great public appreciation of the democratic importance of the media.  And this is what the mainstream Zimbabwean media must strive to achieve as an option out of the highly competitive and  solely for profit media business models. 

In this, it is imperative that journalists respect their own profession and conduct their work with a firm commitment to ethics and professionalism beyond tokenism.  This includes not pandering to every political or big business whim or faction that rears its head with a wad of cash to perpetuate only one side of the story.  Or to also avoid deliberately skipping facts solely in order to ensure that the next pay cheque comes in.  No doubt journalists must be paid but they must also ensure that they are being paid for doing the right thing in the public interest.

That is why the importance of Zimbabwean media support organisations under the banner of Media Alliance of Zimbabwe and the VMCZ remains of the utmost importance.  They help to retain and remind us of the democratic importance of media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information as cornerstones of a progressive, peaceful, inclusive and just Zimbabwe. 

Chairperson, I must conclude by emphasizing that the struggle for a free, vibrant and independent media  in Zimbabwe is far from over.  The incremental changes that have been made to the media law environment while welcome are not an invitation for media stakeholders to reduce their energy levels in pursuing further democratization of the media environment.  Instead, journalists and other media stakeholders must have critical minds in critical times such as these.
Thank you and happy World Press Freedom Day. 
*Takura Zhangazha presents here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)