By Conrad Mwanawashe
WHILE every organisation has rules for engaging with the media and its publics, the media has no obligation to be bound by any organisation’s policies when it comes to reporting issues that are in the interest of the public, media experts say. The media should report such issues without fear or favour, irrespective of which organisation is involved. The media’s primary role is to be a watchdog of society and that entails reporting on and putting under the scrutiny both public and private entities, for the general good of the public, the experts said.
The media experts’ comments come as Econet Wireless Zimbabwe has expressed concern that “all deliberations of the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange board were leaked to the press in breach of provisions of the Listing Requirements that regulate the release of share price sensitive information”.
In its media release just before its extra-ordinary general meeting and in subsequent communication to the stock exchange, Econet aimed pot-shots at the media for reporting on issues surrounding the rights issue.
Media rights advocate and legal practitioner Chris Mhike said the public listing of a corporate makes that entity more accountable and answerable to the public, hence the established requirement for instance, for listed companies to periodically publish their accounts in the national media.
“The listing of a company on the local bourse does not adversely affect the journalistic privileges that are crystalised under section 61 of the Constitution and reinforced by the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Besides the protection of the law for the media, why should any upright and professionally-run organisation prefer secrecy as opposed to the transparency that comes through voluntary disclosure of information or provision of that information to reporters!” said Mr Mhike.
Apart from the Constitution and AIPPA journalists are also protected by self-regulatory instruments such as the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe Code and various civil statutes.
He said also numerous regional, continental and international instruments also provide for the protection of the media’s freedom to gather and disseminate information about private and public subjects, including news about corporate organisations, regulators and government.
Media experts said yesterday any other legal instrument, rules and regulations by different entities as well as extra-legal hindrances are simply non-constitutional and therefore illegal.
“The media in exercising its public watchdog role should not be limited by whims and caprices of the powerful and the connected but should fearlessly report on malpractices in a professional, fair and accountable manner,” VMCZ executive director Loughty Dube said.
Media Institute of Southern Africa executive director Nhlanhla Ngwenya said media should therefore be allowed to watch over the conduct of the stock exchange and expose all manner of activities bad and good for the benefit of the public, including those that involve shareholders of listed companies.
“The stock exchange is a body of public interest whose conduct or misconduct is equally of public interest. Any attempt to impose regulations and rules on journalists covering issues at ZSE which are of public interest is tantamount to gagging the media and journalists accredited by the Zimbabwe Media Commission,” said Mr Ngwenya.
The experts were unanimous that media has a big role to play in informing the public on happenings in corporate organisations especially those that are listed on the ZSE since the investing public has a right to know what is happening in those listed concerns.
“The media should never be bound by any company irrespective of influence and financial clout of that company. When companies make internal policies it is solely for their internal processes and the media even has a right to question the integrity of some of the internal policies of these corporate entities. Journalism is only accountable to professional edicts and the media has a duty to shine light in darker places and report on those issues even if they will anger those that feel are untouchable,” said Mr Dube.
“Corporates should desist from making threats and attempting to stop the media from executing their duty of informing the public and they should concentrate more on improving their corporate governance systems instead,” said Mr Dube.
MISA executive director said instead of attempting to muzzle the media, corporates should be capacitating and working with the sector to expose corruption, a cancer that has eaten into most African countries’ economies.
“One of the main contributing factors to Africa’s depressed GDP, economic growth and human development is corruption, which thrives under cover of darkness. In many instances, and there is vast amounts of evidence to show this, private corporates are involved.
“It is therefore the role of the media to illuminate those dark corridors where the private sector transacts its business both administratively and operationally for the benefit of the public.
“By keeping the corporates in check, the media will contribute towards efforts aimed at eliminating malfeasance. The obsession with mischaracterising the media’s normative role as that of only exposing bad governance by elected office holders has provided latitude to the private sector to misbehave without reproach. It is important that when we say the media is the watchdog of society, we mean the full spectrum of our system and life world and not create sacred cows by exclusion,” he said.
Mr Mhike said where the potential for the existence of corruption is perceivable, any responsible media organisation is obliged to at least investigate.
“Should the journalistic investigation yield newsworthy results the logical next step is to publish those findings, subject to the application of the traditional news verification standards. Without a doubt, the media has a key role to play in the fight against corruption, or in exposing corporate governance malpractices,” said Mr Mhike.
Although journalists may recognise the organisational hierarchy in dealing with private entities, they are not bound by the organisations’ internal policies.
“Otherwise, how else can they report on those entities if they also defer to the internal company rules? Indeed, all media houses have their editorial policies and organisational rules but these are largely for administrative and house-style purposes and not about the core principles of news gathering,” Mr Ngwenya said.