The Sunday Mail
THE dominant narrative in the discourse on media conduct in the pre- and post-electoral period in Zimbabwe has been the inadequacies of the media in comprehensively being representative to the extent of disadvantaging some of the contesting candidates.
What normally informs this critique of the media are the legal and professional parameters that have been set to dictate the coverage of electoral actors.
In Zimbabwe, Section 61 of the supreme law espouses the value propositions of how the media has to conduct itself within and without the electoral cycle. The law that governs the conduct of elections in the country, the Electoral Act, goes a step further to compel all media to be a conduit of all contesting parties to the election by dictating equal and fair coverage.
Statutory Instrument 33 of 2008 outlines some of the indicators demonstrating how inclusivity in reportage can be attained.
Other measures at law worth noting include the vested powers of the elections management body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), to regulate and play an oversight role over the media, including, but not limited to, the setting up of a Media Monitoring Committee to track the media’s adherence to the set legal standards.
ZEC — with technical assistance from a sister commission with an oversight on media matters, the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), and the statutory broadcasting regulatory authority, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) — also adjudicates over complaints raised against the media.
All these progressive legal measures complement professional standards the media themselves have put in place to ensure impartiality and non-partisanship.
Some news media outlets conform to a code of conduct administered and enforced by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), while others have their own internal self-regulation mechanisms.
Journalistic standards are universal and not dictated by platform or ownership.
Facts, the basis on which journalism thrives, do not change — whether reported on radio, on television, online or in newspapers. Facts are sacrosanct.
Journalism is a science of verification, and the pursuit for truth is not dictated by whether the news outlet is owned by the State, private players or by the community.
Beyond the VMCZ code of conduct, every media organisation has set standards that denote the quality of the news and its editorial thrust. These standards take various forms and shapes but have the same intention of safeguarding professionalism and ensuring accountability.
In some media organisations, there is an editorial charter, gender policies, editorial pledges and guidelines that journalists should abide by.
There are also internal mechanisms that vary from one organisation to the other, with some having ombudsmen, while others have editorial boards or training editors that are tasked with handling public complaints and enforcing the set standards.
The various political players and other stakeholders need to know the existence of these internal self-regulation mechanisms and challenge the media organisations to abide by the standards they have set for themselves, especially during the election period.
Notwithstanding the above existing structures in formalised news media organisations, the media arena in Zimbabwe remains a contested space to the extent of losing credibility of being a neutral conduit for all contesting views and a marketplace of ideas.
This poses a great challenge not only in promoting media accountability but it also puts journalists at high risk of facing unorthodox sanctions by political actors.
The moment journalists are perceived as political actors — by openly identifying themselves with one political party and, in some instances, joining and actively participating in activities of those parties — they lose the moral standing of professional protection.
The International Training Programme (ITP) Media Reference Book (prepared for participants in an international development programme supported by the Swedish government) aptly captures this point, where, in Chapter 8 of the publication, it is argued that “the greatest self-regulatory challenge facing the news media today is building trust”.
“Confidence in traditional news providers is eroding, which threatens both the economic sustainability and the protected political status of independent journalism in many countries. Action is needed both to strengthen protective legal frameworks and improve self-regulatory systems for independent journalism in order to avert inappropriate state regulation.”
There is, therefore, a nexus between journalism safety and the imperative for the media to be professional.
We have seen cases where journalists have been labelled as belonging to the ruling or opposition parties, resulting in them being barred from covering gatherings where they are not viewed as journalists but political foes.
On the other hand, most contesting candidates and members of the public rarely test the existing mechanisms of holding the media accountable.
Often, those offended by the media take the matters into their own hands through rowdy supporters or overzealous security marshals. The challenge could be that of a lack of knowledge of these accountability mechanisms on the part of officials, supporters and the public.
The need for public engagement in building trust around these media accountability measures is also covered in the ITP reference book, where it argues that “(effective regulation of the media) requires public engagement and political support for the principle that editorially independent, legally protected, professionally competent and economically sustainable news media are essential to any democratic system — even when (or especially when) the news media is reporting on issues and exposing facts that many in the public and political leadership may find deeply uncomfortable,” it said.
“The corollary is that news media organisations should be held accountable if they fail to adhere to the proclaimed codes of conduct. At the same time, a better-informed public — a public with a greater understanding and confidence in independent news organisations in their countries and local communities — would be a stronger ally of the media when journalists are confronting what they consider inappropriate and, in some cases, unlawful state (and non-state) intrusion into their operations and news reports.”
As Zimbabwe is now firmly in the electoral period, the challenge is two-pronged.
On the one hand, the media should adhere to the legal and professional obligation in covering elections.
On the other hand, contesting parties, supporters and the public should ensure a safe operating environment for the media.
They should exercise restraint and respect media freedoms by testing the existing accountability mechanisms available to them.
Ultimately, a professional and accountable media benefits us all.
Nigel Nyamutumbu is a journalist and media development practitioner currently heading the secretariat of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe. He is the Zimbabwe national facilitator of the ITP Media, an international development programme supported by the Swedish government.