Mugabe to Mnangagwa Transition: ‘If you want to join politics, please do so, but quit journalism first’

By Nevanji Madanhire

There is a global debate on whether journalists who
are active members of a political party can still be
expected to work and report professionally.
Three state media journalists — Tendai Munengwa, Andrew
Neshamba and Garikai Mazara of the public-funded Zimbabwe
Broadcasting Corporation and The Sunday Mail — abandoned
their workstations to present themselves as candidates in
primary elections ahead of the 2018 general elections. They
lost and trooped back to their respective newsrooms and
continued with their journalism work without batting an eyelid.
They are hardly the first journalists to have done so in
Zimbabwe’s history. Quite a number of those who have, have
met success and become the role models of lots of
young journalists.
Kindness Paradza (Zanu PF, Makonde West) has been a
parliamentarian for more than 15 years and has gained national
esteem as chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign
affairs where he lives a jet-set life. He has also become a
successful farmer, thanks to the land reform programme that
began at the turn of the millennium and saw land being
expropriated from white farmers and given to indigenous
blacks. He was a beneficiary of that process.
Supa Mandiwanzira (Zanu PF, Nyanga South) has gained fame
and fortune from politics becoming a government minister and
a successful businessman. He rose from being a ZBC anchorman
to becoming one of the most visible business personalities. His
business empire straddles media, farming and construction.
He runs a radio station and publishes a business newspaper.
Before these two, popular broadcaster James Makamba left
journalism at independence to join politics. He became very
rich and at one time had a controlling stake in Telecel, the
third largest mobile phone services provider.
Obert Mpofu has also had a rewarding career in politics rising
at one time to the presidium of the ruling Zanu PF party and
heading the powerful ministry of home affairs. His business
empire straddles tourism, transport and property.
Over the last 10 years, we have also seen Energy Bara and
celebrated veteran Zimbabwean journalist Geoff Nyarota
standing for elections for the opposition Movement for
Democratic Change (MDC), losing and bouncing back to their
professional jobs in the private media.

Lure of power

Many young journalists love the scent of power and its allure
and wish to emulate those who have crossed the divide between
politics and journalism.

But at what cost to the profession of journalism?

It is a fact the public broadcaster ZBC had an arrangement
with Munengwa and Neshamba that allowed them to return
to work in the event that they lost the election. They both
contested the Mt. Darwin South primary election and lost. The
same arrangement also applied to Mazara at The Sunday
Mail who contested the Guruve South constituency.
But this raises lots of ethical issues. can these journalists adhere
to the codified ethics of journalism[2], namely
1. Accuracy;
2. Impartiality; and
3. Fairness?
This cannot be because a combine of politics and journalism
undermines the principles underlying [3] journalism ethics,
namely
1. Providing reliable information for responsible public debate;
2. Holdings officials accountable; and
3. Informing decisions of the electorate.
At the material time Mazara was Features and Opinions editor
of the highest circulating newspaper in the country which
means he controlled the newspaper’s political thrust. Munengwa
and Neshamba were senior reporters on the country’s only
television broadcaster which meant their voices were flighted
into every home in the country.

Journalists and politicians

Writing in his essay titled: “The relationship between journalists
and politicians”, internationally renowned journalist and media
strategy consultant David Brewer says, “In democracies, the
role of the journalist is supposed to be to inform the public
debate so that the audience can make educated choices.”
‘If you want to join politics, please
do so, but quit journalism first’
But is that possible when the journalist becomes partisan?
For one to contest a Zanu PF primary election he/she should
have been a member of the party for at least five years beginning
at the grassroots level. It is clear therefore some of the journalists cited
above have belonged to the ruling party for several years at
the very least and for the time they have belonged to the party
they have used their positions to promote partisan interests.
It can be concluded therefore that the three journalists used
their jobs to promote the line of the ruling party and position
themselves for power. It follows they were compromised.
Writing in his blog post titled “Why I said no to joining politics
(and why journalists should say no too)”  about a prominent
Indian journalist who crossed the divide, Rajdeep
Sardesai says:
“Granted, journalists are human and have a right to carry
political opinion. But when any individual joins a party he
ceases to be an ‘independent’ voice and a journalist sans
independence who cannot tell truth to power is a non-sequitur.
Once a journalist enters the political domain he or she sheds
any pretence at independent journalism.”
But the journalist who crosses the floor into politics and back
is hardly the only one open to manipulation by politicians.
Many Zimbabwean journalists have assumed the role of
embedded politicians in the newsrooms.

Seven types of journalists

Brewer  identifies seven types of journalists whose work is
influenced by politics much to the detriment of
their professionalism.
The first is what he calls the hunter. This journalist tracks
politicians down relentlessly. Follows any trail. This journalist
never gives up until they have their prey. They are driven and
won’t believe the politician, even when the politician is telling
the truth. The hunter journalist can often lack perspective and
objectivity. Their contribution to enhancing the understanding
of the audience is questionable.
In Zimbabwe, the hunter can be found in both the public and
private media and is the crusader for the polarization that has
haunted Zimbabwean media for decades.
The second is the activist; the kind of journalist committed
to a cause and would fight any politician who is against that
cause while supporting any politician who backs the cause.
This journalist can be blinkered and one-dimensional. He/she
finds it hard to be objective because he/she realizes that
offering another perspective may weaken the angle he/she
wishes to push. The activist journalist enjoys being seen as the
martyr and often risks becoming the story rather than covering
the story.
Third is the buddy journalist. This one becomes a close
friend to the politician and rarely questions their position, often
taking the stance that the politician is right regardless of any
evidence to the contrary. The buddy journalist is easily
manipulated.
In Zimbabwe this kind of journalist is the apostle of “brown
envelope journalism”. He/she takes bribes!
The fourth is the possession journalist. He/she is owned
by the politician through compromise and over-familiarity.
He/she is likely to publish anything the politician wants with
no questions asked. This journalist is little more than an unpaid
member of the politician’s public relations team. They enjoy
name-dropping and being seen as connected to the influential.
Fifth is the party-member journalist. This one does his/her
best to hide their allegiance, but can’t help it showing through
in their tone, story choice and their ability (or inability) to ask
the searching question. The party member journalist will spend
a lot of time rubbishing the political opinions of those with
whom they disagree. They can be spotted by their enthusiasm
for a story that other, less-compromised, journalists fail to see.
They will defend that story choice against all logical reasoning.
Sixth is the comfortable journalist, the “I’ll scratch your
back, you scratch mine” journalist. His/her view is why fight
when you can both have a profitable and easy life? Who will
know? This journalist sees their job as a chore that serves only
to provide the means to exist. Usually enjoys fine wine and
good food and is available to all parties to woo. The comfortable
journalist sees this as being fair, impartial and objective.
Finally is the constructive journalist. He/she is manipulated
by those who fear probing, rigorous and sceptical journalism.
He/she is pressured into self censorship due to senior and peergroup
pressure to take a positive view of news. This could lead
to the “constructive journalist” becoming little more than a
public relations machine having been stripped of their role in
scrutinizing, questioning, and holding the powerful to account.
The constructive journalist allows those with something to hide
to keep their secrets and becomes a messenger for those who
are setting the “constructive” and “positive” news agendas.

Who then is the true journalist?

Brewer posits the true journalist is, “Free from party ties, has
integrity and can’t be bought, is passionate about informing
the public debate, seeks the truth, reports objectively and fairly,
and includes multiple perspectives even those they dislike. Is
prepared to investigate all they hold dear. Sees nobody as
being beyond reproach and is realistic about human nature.

The true journalist seeks the truth.”

Brewer concludes: “What is clear is that the relationship
between journalists and politicians can have a significant
impact on the functioning of a fair and just society. Politicians
make decisions and take action on behalf of the public.
Journalists scrutinize those decisions and report the implications
to the public.”
Zimbabwean journalism has reached its own “post-truth” era.
It is highly polarized with journalists taking sides in the country’s
intractable political conflict. The public media fights tenaciously
in the corner of the ruling Zanu PF party while the private
media has taken the opposition’s fight as its brief. This has
debased all newsrooms into extension of political party
commissariat departments. It explains how some journalists
can walk into politics and back into journalism without shame.
But this has resulted in the public antagonism towards journalists
and journalism. Journalists in Zimbabwe are now regarded as
liars who have abrogated their responsibility to tell the truth.
A 2014 survey by the Ministry of Information, Media and
Broadcasting Services adequately trapped the thinking of the
general populace. The Information and Media Panel of Inquiry
(IMPI) steered by veteran journalist Geoffrey Nyarota, among
other observations established that:
“Polarization has also compromised the ethical standards of
journalism in the country and the media has therefore fuelled
the polarized environment. The media in Zimbabwe are generally
regarded by the public as manifestly corrupt and designed for
disinformation, propaganda and information cover-up across
the spectrum. There is no longer a mass media publication that
is widely respected and regarded as factual…” (P19)
Sardesai [6] concludes his blog saying:
“It is my unshaken belief that a professional independent
journalist must remain just that: an observer and chronicler
with strong views but not a player or participant in the tricky
game of politics: if you want to join politics, please do so, but
quit journalism first.”
This calls for journalist to assume a high standard of
professionalism by distancing themselves from politics. A CAJ
report says:
“As chroniclers of history who help citizens make well-informed
choices, working journalists bear the burden of a higher public
expectation that they submit personal bias and political view
to the demands and disciplines of their work. A range of
independent, unencumbered and trustworthy media is a valued
asset in any democratic society.”

Nevanji Madanhire has worked as a journalist since 1990 and has
edited four national newspapers namely, Financial Gazette, Business
Tribune, The Standard and NewsDay.

This article was first published Media Monitors in Change of Guard, Zimbabwe Media: Mugabe to Mnangagwa Transition

Publication was with support from OSISA