“Advocating for media freedom is a collective responsibility” says Reyhana Masters-Smith

Reyhana Masters-Smith has worked in the mainstream media for more than two decades. She served as chairperson of MISA-Zimbabwe from 2002 to 2005, when she left to take up a Hubert Humphrey Fellowship in the US. She is currently IFEX’s Africa Regional Editor. As the Global Conference for Media Freedom  began  in London , she spoke to the British Embassy in Harare about the importance of building networks and looking long term.

‘Any issue can be politicised’

During my formative years as a journalist I worked for both the state and private media. When I was working for Zimbabwe’s monthly news magazine Parade, I wrote my first story about the impact of HIV and AIDS on a young and vulnerable woman. The Zimbabwe government’s response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic when the first case was reported in Zimbabwe was subdued, with reporting on the topic still considered sensitive. The risk of reporting on this politically hot issue at the time made me realise that threats to media freedom come in all shapes and forms. Any issue can be politicised from sports to health to the environment.

Hostile environment

I was elected to head the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in the early 2000s. It took me on a journey I did not anticipate. I didn’t realise that at the time my understanding of media freedom and freedom of expression issues was superficial. Laws were being enacted to restrict freedom of assembly and expression. The media space was heavily regulated. As MISA chairperson, I was in at the deep end: fighting for media freedom while ensuring that the organisation supported journalists who were being threatened, assaulted and arrested on a regular basis. The laws at the time were being selectively applied against activists and freelance journalists or those working for the privately-owned media.

It was an extremely hostile environment to work in. Along with many other advocates and activists, I chose to fight for my colleagues who were being intimidated and arbitrarily arrested on a regular basis. Some of the people who’ve had the biggest influence on my career are people I came into contact with and learnt from during those days. They include former colleagues like the late Jeanette Minnie, and Raymond Louw, Zoe Titus, Rashweat Mukundu, Gwen Lister, Andrew Moyse, Jesper Hojberg, Geoffrey Nyarota, Tawanda Hondora, Irene Petras, Bruce Mujeyi, and so many others.

Voracious reader

There is no one defining moment that has shaped me. Rather, it is a series of events and moments that shaped me and my thinking. My father believed in standing up for all rights while my mother hated any form of injustice. So you can imagine how this thinking was etched into my brain. From an early age my father had me reading and without discernment. I voraciously consumed all forms of writing. So it was no surprise that I wanted to be a writer. Knowing about an event is not enough for me. I always need to understand the backstory. Which is probably why I got into journalism in the first place. Curiosity and yearning for deeper understanding has also defined the way I work and think.

Advocating for media freedom is a collective responsibility. You have to build strong networks of influence. In this part of the world where governments may want to dismiss rights advocacy work by citizens as “Western influenced”, it is crucial to build and support regional linkages and systems of support. You have also to build and strengthen networks outside of the media sector.

A long-term commitment

Over the years, I have also realised that a confrontational approach to engaging with the leadership of a country does not always work. There are times when engagement with those who oppose you and your thinking will be more productive in yielding durable results. Fighting for rights is a long-term commitment. You should aim for the small victories along the way. Digital platforms allow for the sharing of news beyond borders. This provides greater opportunity for advocates and influencers to build solidarity. But this is a space that is so easy for government to regulate through the law as well as state apparatus. The fact that governments want to regulate and constrict the digital space and the rights and freedoms that this space offers is one of the major threats of this decade. Shutting down the internet or disrupting specific platforms is a violation of peoples’ right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression