The national interest is paramount

Dr Christopher Mushohwe Special Correspondent
MAY I express my gratitude to Zinef and other members of the Steering Committee of the World Press Freedom Day for inviting me to grace this occasion which has become an annual event on our media calendar. As you are aware, my ministry is an interested party in this event as one of the key media stakeholders in this country. The World Press Freedom Day is, therefore, our great day together.

The Unesco theme this year is: “Critical minds for critical times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies”. This theme was culled from the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) number 16 which relates to the promotion “of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

According to Unesco, successful implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda is dependent, to a very large extent, on the role played by the media in building knowledge societies which in turn impact positively on the whole range of the UN SDGs. The Unesco theme therefore draws our attention to the role of journalists as our critical minds during critical times.

It is a clarion call to the media to remind our journalists that they need to guard jealously their profession against abuse by those bent on destabilising our societies. In the absence of peace and stability, no meaningful development can take place and the media play a very crucial role in promoting peace, unity and cohesion within our communities, within our nations, between nations and ultimately, the promotion of peace among countries of the world.

I noticed that the theme of your symposium is adapted from the Unesco theme to get us to focus locally on our own situation in Zimbabwe. That is as it should be so that we avoid discussing issues in abstract terms but focus instead on real issues that are relevant to our country. Looking at your programme, I urge you to do justice to the chosen topics for discussions so that a realistic picture emerges which approximates a fair assessment and correct overview of the state of the media in Zimbabwe.

You will recall that towards the end of March this year, I held a meeting with most of our editors across all media titles during which I raised what I felt were critical issues that required attention so that corrective measures could be taken. Similarly, the editors raised issues with me which they felt ought to be addressed by Government in order to improve the media landscape in Zimbabwe.

That kind of interface is very healthy for our sector and my wish has always been that such meetings should be a regular feature on our annual calendar. The platform gives our editors an opportunity to know Government’s position and thinking on a number of policy issues and areas of mutual interest. My approach is one of openness and the constructive engagement with each other so that we build mutual trust and confidence between Government and the media.

I want to kill the divisive spirit in the media of “them and us”. The description of our media as either private or public does not exist in my vocabulary. As Minister of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services I superintend over the media industry in Zimbabwe without exception.

The composition of your various associations such as the Zimbabwe Editors’ Forum, the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, the Association of News Publishers and any such association which brings together players from the public and private media, augurs well for our industry because it provides platforms on which to address common concerns.

This helps to kill media polarisation we are witnessing in our country today and fuelled by partisan interests as political parties begin jockeying for space in the build up to the next general elections. Media polarisation is unhealthy, counter-productive, unprofessional and extremely deplorable. It does not benefit our nation but shortchanges our people by serving them a daily diet of half-baked news and misleading information.

I don’t doubt that you will rise to the occasion today and find solutions to this scourge which is afflicting our media each time our nation goes to general elections. Allowing our media to be abused by the politicians does not help to build a cohesive and professional industry. Such abuse is a bane on our society, divisive and retrogressive.

Let me repeat here what I told our editors two months ago by way of emphasis. I said that if our media were to be guided by the national interest in discharging their watchdog role as the Fourth Estate, then we would not experience media polarisation. Some among our journalists have argued that they are patriotic and that no one has a monopoly on patriotism and defining the national interest. I have said fine, but to avoid unnecessary confusion and ambiguity about what defines national interest, let us all turn to our Constitution which is the supreme law of the land and imposes obligations that are binding on all of us.

That Constitution enjoins the State, every citizen of Zimbabwe, “including juristic persons, and every institution and agency of Government at every level, to promote national unity, peace and stability”.

Surely, no sane Zimbabwean can quarrel about the sanctity of our Independence and national sovereignty; dispute our right to self-determination; disagree with national unity and the indivisibility of Zimbabwe; quarrel with the need to safeguard national security; or challenge our right to our natural resources; to the promotion and preservation of our cultural values and practices; to the promotion and advancement of the use of all languages used in Zimbabwe, including sign language. I am convinced that if our media keeps these values and principles uppermost on their minds, media polarisation would die a natural death.

Needless to mention that the legislative environment has to be revisited in order to ensure that the existing laws are aligned with our new Constitution. But equally important is the need to look at our sector in view of more media players coming on board especially on the side of the electronic media. ZBC monopoly has been broken with the advent of new players on the radio side and very soon other new broadcasters will come on board on the television side.

Government efforts to address most of the media concerns regarding governance of their industry is work in progress. The commitment is there and it is only a matter of time before we fulfil our promise to hold the media indaba following the views we canvassed two years ago through the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) whose report we have been studying. You may have noticed that in the past few weeks I have been criss-crossing the country leading a high-powered ministry delegation inspecting progress on the digitalisation infrastructure projects and preparing our people for the advent of digital broadcasting and the potential for employment creation it generates in the content creation industry. We have the last leg to go and soon thereafter we will be focusing on the media indaba to discuss ideas for the new legislative framework.

There are many among our journalists who argue for self-regulation as synonymous with press freedom. That is a fallacy and an ideal which is not borne by the reality on the ground. Focusing on Zimbabwe, I am sure you will agree with me that the media sector faces a serious challenge of ethical standards in the newsrooms which has not been helped by political polarisation also spilling into the newsrooms where party politics plays out editorially to the detriment of professional and ethical standards.

Negativity has become the order of the day at the expense of positive news. We are a literate society which deserves better from our media. I hope during your symposium you will be able to look into this issue and other areas that bring our noble profession into disrepute. Look at the story of Cde Chinx’s house which all our dailies cover today (Wednesday) to appreciate what I am talking about in terms of our obsession with negativity.

It is a human interest story which speaks well about the humane spirit which characterises most Zimbabweans but this is downplayed. I leave the rest to your imagination.

It remains for me to wish you fruitful deliberations in your meeting this morning.

I shall certainly look forward to receiving your recommendations.

In conclusion, Zimbabwe is a member of the UN family. Today, It joins the rest of the world in commemorating World Press Freedom Day. Let the commemorations begin.

I thank you.

This was the address by the Hon Minister of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services, Dr C.C Mushowe, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, Harare Polytechnic, May 3, 2017.

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