Zimbabwe’s media, though not publicly stating it, is smarting from the recent cabinet reshuffle. Not least because the previous minister responsible for information, Professor Jonathan Moyo, was a rather larger than life character, but also because he had taken great control of the media reform agenda, or a lack of it. From his now muted Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI), through to his statements over and about broadcasting, media ethics and statements against criminal defamation, Moyo curried the media’s favour (and rare anger) through what can be only described with hindsight as a ‘carrot and stick’ method.
Not that the media did not appreciate the seeming open door policy that Moyo offered. It actively participated in overtures such as IMPI (and the monetary benefits attendant thereto) despite the latter’s sketchy legal mandate. Others took advantage and also applied for local commercial radio station licences which were to be duly granted to those that have been accused of being close to the Zanu Pf establishment, or at least having close links to Moyo.
Key questions that emerge, however, relate to whether in fact Moyo’s tenure at the ministry of media, information, and broadcasting services achieved much, or at least even addressed, the structural challenges faced by Zimbabwe’s media.
An answer closer to the truth would be that the media can argue that there is the IMPI report as a clear sign of some sort of progress, at least where it proposes media policy changes. The only problem with this remains the fact that it is a report that, as it was begun, awaits the benevolence of the now acting minister to be implemented.
Furthermore, the continued government ambiguity over and about criminal defamation essentially means that barring a constitutional courts pending determination on the matter, the qualitative democratization of our media environment is yet to be realized.
Even media owners (print/electronic), independent television, and film producers, though having been promised improved functional conditions, are still waiting for that aspect of a ‘media industry’ that was much vaunted at the beginning of Moyo’s recently ended tenure in that ministry.
So if there is any immediate lesson that the media as a whole has to draw from Moyo’s tenure in that particular ministry, it is that it is not enough to rely on the ambivalent benevolence of a singular government official. This should not be taken to mean that ministers or policy makers cannot be lobbied successfully on a singular basis. But that such lobbying must remain cognizant of cooptation into policy processes over which the media itself eventually has little or no control for their lack of transparency or statutory posterity.
Add to this the fact that the media must avoid bifurcation where government claims to be addressing its concerns. There should be common ground principles and values established by media stakeholders in a holistic fashion before getting head first into government reform frameworks. So for example there is need for media stakeholders to clearly define their parameters of interaction, their anticipated roles in broader social, cultural and economic development frameworks and any other pertinent issues of their fields of specialty.
This is not an easy task and often times it is easier to wait on government, but the latter has no problem playing easily variegated interests against the other.
Essentially Zimbabwe’s media must learn to be much more honest with itself going forward. And such honesty cannot include negating its true ‘fourth estate’ role to the whims of government or just the pursuit of profit. What is required is a balance between editorial values, profit motives (media owner editorial interference), safer and freer working conditions for journalists, while respecting government from a constitutionally given but safe distance.
Where the media fails to do so, there will be other seemingly ‘distant from the center’ cases such as that of Chiredzi journalist, Patrick Chitongo, who is out on bail pending appeal on his one year jail term for publishing a newspaper without a license.
The Zimbabwean media must increasingly stand its own ground on its own terms, which are informed by organically-arrived-at democratic values and principles that help maintain its editorial independence and serve the best democratic public interest. Whatever its incremental gains or losses after Moyo’s ‘carrot and stick’ tenure, the media must regroup and define itself much more holistically for its own sake and for that of the country.