Zimbabwe media polarisation: Who is to blame?

Re-appointed Information and Broadcasting Services minister, Jonathan Moyo has called for an end to the blatant media polarisation prevalent in the country

Re-appointed Information and Broadcasting Services minister, Jonathan Moyo has called for an end to the blatant media polarisation prevalent in the country at the moment.

Sunday Opinion by Desmond Kumbuka

Speaking after a surprise visit to Alpha Media Holdings premises as part of his so-called charm offensive to engage the local media, Moyo stated: “Polarisation hasn’t been in anyone’s interest, yourselves, [the media] ourselves [government] and business.”

The minister was referring to the undeclared cold war between the various media entities in the country, which has seen them adopt mutually repellent positions on issues of democracy and governance. Of course, there is no way this deleterious state of affairs can be beneficial to any country, especially one battling to convince a sceptical world over issues of its image, credibility and commitment to universally accepted tenets of democracy. So in this regard, the minister’s call should be applauded.

More importantly, this is, no doubt, welcome news for consumers of media products who have invariably fallen victim to some of the drivel peddled as news, a consequence of the said polarisation.

I have often been confronted by incredulous readers of newspapers and listeners of radio broadcasts questioning how it is that reporters from the public media (ZBC radio and TV), and Zimpapers publications on the one hand, and those from the private media such as Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) and Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) on the other hand, can produce diametrically opposed reports on one news event. They wonder how two reporters can glean totally different messages from the same occasion.

Admittedly, these issues may be complex and vexatious to the journalists concerned because of their peculiar circumstances, but the ordinary reader cannot be expected to understand that. So the inevitable conclusion is to chalk this down to deliberate bias, cynicism or downright incompetence. This is disastrous for the credibility of the media as a whole, and for the integrity of journalism as a profession.

For a start, it is no secret that the government, has in the past routinely associated private media with opposition politics while the public media has not hidden its overwhelming support for President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu PF. What will certainly prove problematic is to try to unravel this imbroglio when each of the two sides is convinced theirs is the correct position. There was a good illustration of this during the minister’s visit to AMH.

In discussions with staff, AMH group senior associate editor Iden Wetherell stated: “The public media cannot be a tool for one political party. We do not want to see abuse of the public media.” To which the minister responded, “You and I have a duty to make sure it’s possible and I think your experience will help to tell the youngsters that there is more to journalism than pushing political positions.”

The two statements viewed in juxtaposition encapsulate the intractable dilemma of trying to change the entrenched mindsets of people convinced their particular stance is the correct one.

On one hand, Wetherell as a senior media practitioner, is right in expecting all media to adhere to the same standards of professionalism, just as much as one would expect those in authority to push for the same. On the flipside, you have ZBC chief correspondent Reuben Barwe hiding behind a finger when challenged over his bias in favour of Zanu PF in his news reports. He flatly rejected the assertion insisting that what is perceived as “bias” is actually “patriotism” in his scheme of things.

The Million Dollar Question.

So the million dollar question is, who is responsible for the media polarisation? Which of the two sides of the media equation needs to surrender to strike the right equilibrium acceptable to the minister? If the ZBC and the newspapers in the Zimpapers stable consider it to be “patriotic” to unquestioningly publish Zanu PF propaganda while excoriating opposition politicians, who is to wield the axe to stop the rot? It would certainly be naïve in the extreme to expect the ruling party, benefitting from the venality of some of the state media journalists, to act against it.

One of the greatest ironies of the moment has to be the fact that Moyo himself may have unwittingly contributed to the current polarisation when he previously branded the private media as enemies of the State.

We clearly remember his public statements about “oppositional press” to say nothing of his well-orchestrated role in causing the persecution and closure of several newspapers a few years ago. By branding private media enemies of the State, Moyo effectively planted the seeds of polarisation which he now seeks to uproot. My contention is that the problem of media polarisation was created by the politicians, in particular Zanu PF, and ultimately, the solution to the problem must find origins where it started.