Ethical challenges in media coverage of the Zimbabwe crisis
Author: Jacob Enoh-Eben
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 02/04/2008
Category: Special Report II
When journalists under everyday conditions are seen to have strong sentiments for family, friends, or community, they are often taken off the story that involves them. When their sentiments for country are seen as strong in wartime, they are rarely removed from the story; rather, the expectation, at least in some quarters, is that they will simply change how they conduct themselves as journalists (Allan and Zelizer 2004: 4).
Hardly are the media ever faced with so many daunting ethical challenges than in times of conflict.
Ethical considerations are significantly negotiated during situations of conflict. Within a continuum, wherein liberal democracy flanks one end and a dictatorship the other, ethical pitfalls deepen as you progress to the latter. Coverage of major conflicts and wars at the highest international levels, notably the World Wars, the Persian Gulf Warn and most recently the war on terror are perfect examples. This is true as well with the proliferation of intrastate conflicts in the likes Chechnya, Burma/Mynmar, the Rwandan Genocide and the Zimbabwe Land crisis.
Background and Context
Southern Rhodesia got its independence in 1980, and became known as Zimbabwe. In a pre-independence agreement (famously called, the Lancaster House Agreement) in 1979 at Lancaster, in the UK, the parties almost failed to reach an agreement over the land issue. The policy of willing sellers and willing buyers of land was reached, with the white minority were guaranteed 20% seats in parliament.
The issue of land has remained a major issue that is not only being perceived with racial lenses but seen as a conspiracy of the West to maintain influence in Zimbabwe. Meanwhile, the government of President Mugabe is using the land, race and supposed “Western conspiracy” as trump cards to maintain the status quo, especially after the country overwhelmingly voted against a proposed new constitution in 2000. Even after the formation of the opposition political party, Movement for Democratic Change by Morgan Tsvangirai, it was still perceived as opposing the government in favour of Western powers.
Two significant, recent turning points on the land issue were in 2002 and 2005. Following a period of squatting by the 1970 war veterans on white-owned farmland, in August 2002, the Zimbabwean government ordered all the whites out of those lands without compensation. The situation was compounded in 2005 when the Operation Murambatsvina, “Clean the Filth”, where over 700,000 according to UN statistics, were driven out of theirs when slums and shantytowns in Harare were demolished by the government. In 2002 Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations. That same year, Mugabe won the 2002 Presidential elections that was characterised by massive rigging. These sparked off criticisms and animosity by the media, opposition party, Churches and the international community against Mugabe. He was accused of perpetrating gross human rights violations.
The relationship between Zimbabwean government and the west has significantly soared and continue to deteriorate. Analysts say the seizure from experienced commercial farmers to the amateur ordinary black farmers is a major cause of the country’s present economic decline. Unemployment, poverty and inflation rates have reached unimaginable peaks. Inflation, according to the International Crisis Group September 2007 report on Zimbabwe, “is between 7,600 per cent (government figures) and 13,000 per cent (independent estimates).” This is the highest in the world. Meanwhile, human rights violation increases, with journalists, civil society activists, opposition party leaders and other anti-Mugabe sympathizers being the targets.
Muzzling the Media, a Challenge to Professional Ethics
Media being a reflection of society remains a very strong maxim pitting the relationship between the two, media and society. This maxim is a truism in Zimbabwe where the media landscape mirrors, but also influences and contributes to shaping the socio-political context. Operating in such quasi-totalitarian regime poses immense challenges to the ethics of journalism and media practice. Pre-independence Zimbabwe was characterized by a repressive political regime that tightly restricted freedom of association, expression and speech.
The tense political environment gave rise to a rebellion championed by “Freedom Fighters”, in the likes of Joshua Nkomo, Muzorewa and Robert Mugabe. Even after independence in 1980 much did not change in this respect. With Robert Mugabe as Prime Minister and Canaan Banana as President, the grip over the freedom of the media, association and expression of opinion still remained tight. However, during the 90s there was a semblance of socio-political freedom that paved the way for the emergence of civil society organizations, the private press and opposition political parties.
Since 2000 the situation started changing significantly. Within the last seven years, three major regulations have been introduced, which have enormously contributed to shaping the media landscape in Zimbabwe. These are: the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA); the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA). The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) was passed in 2002. Its main provision gives the government excessive powers to control the media, requiring the registration of journalists and media houses, while prohibiting the abuse of free expression. According to the Act, “the right of access may be exercised by any citizen or resident (but not an unregistered media agency or foreign government) to records held by a public body. Under the rules, the body must respond to a request in thirty days.”
However, there are a number of exceptions to the access to information, including information on cabinet documents, national security, intergovernmental relations, privacy, etc. The Act also created a Media and Information Commission whose role has mainly been the repression of freedom of expression. In January 2005, the AIPPA was amended to allow for the imprisonment of journalists for up to two years if they had not registered with the Commission. This Act was interpreted as highly controversial and strongly opposed by many governmental and non-governmental bodies both with Zimbabwe and abroad.
The Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) were both enacted in 2001 and 2002 respectively. The BSA was reported to have been introduced to stifle any private initiatives around broadcasting, since the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holding (ZBH) is the only broadcaster permitted to carry out diffusion services in the country. It largely remains a propaganda tool for the ruling ZANU-PF.
The BSA also prohibits any foreigner and Zimbabwean living abroad from being involved in any broadcasting activities. While no foreigner is supposed to own any shares in either radio or television, no individual Zimbabwean can own beyond ten percent of shares. Also, at least 75% of all local electronic media content must be locally generated.
Meanwhile, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) make it an offence to publish or communicate false statements prejudicial to the state. The media landscape became even rougher and more slippery when the Criminal (Codification and Reform) Act was enacted in June 2005. Within the framework of the latter, journalists could serve a jail term of up to 20 years for publishing certain stories. Following a myriad of criticisms from many international organisations, the government planned to remove the offending articles in these laws, but that is still to have happened.
These laws are clearly tools in the hands of the politicians, to have control over the process and product. It has been effective, amongst others, in creating two camps. On one hand, the government and pro-Mugabe camp believe that these laws have helped put the media and their cohorts in order. They hold that the private media and civil society started an anti-Mugabe campaign only after the controversial land redistribution policy. That they are being used by powerful external forces, especially the West to effect “regime change” in Zimbabwe. On the other hand, the opposition political party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the private media and civil society organizations accuse the government of clamping down on the private media, stifling freedom of expression and opinion, whilst using public or state-own media to churn out propaganda to maintain its grip on power.
These laws have significantly impacted critical and independent media in Zimbabwe. Journalists and other media practitioners have suffered retribution, arrests and physical abuse for their professionalism. Some have lost their jobs whilst others have simply fled the country. Two of seven media houses are reported to have disappeared in between. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), “the harsh legislative environment which saw the closure of the Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday in September 2003, the Tribune in June 2004 and the Weekly Times in February 2004 barely two months after its launch, adds to the uncertainty in investing in the media industry.”
Today, surviving private print media include the Financial Gazette, The Independent, The Standard and The Mirror. Meanwhile, those operated by the government include The Chronicle, The Herald, The Sunday Mail, The Sunday News, The Manica Post and the Kwayedza. Almost all of these are operated by the Zimbabwean Mass Media Trust (ZMMT), a Trust created by the government after independence.
Following the restriction on the electronic airwaves, it is evident that the government’s monopoly is triumphing. The Zimbabwean Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH) runs both the radio and television channels, with the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) as the main. Given the polarization of the country, the extent to which the various outlets apply ethical considerations remain a course for concern. Drawing from the Potter’s Box of ethical considerations (Christians, Fackler and Rotzoll: 1994), it is evident that whether journalistic principles and values are compromised or not, the loyalty of the public broadcaster would be paid to the state. State-owned media are said to be generally propaganda machines, serving as the mouthpiece of the government; they preach patriotism and anti-colonialism; celebrate the invasion of white-owned farmlands. Their coverage, if at all, of the MDC Party, its leaders and activities is largely biased and skewed, with little or no reports on arrests, detentions or deportations.
International media from within the Southern African sub-region, notably in South Africa and the West, have mostly also fallen into the “for-” or “against-” camps. Major media outlets that focus on covering Zimbabwe are mostly South African-based media: they include the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), eTV, M-Net, numerous radio stations and newspapers. Their coverage as well sometimes comes across as pro-white, pro-MDC, anti-Mugabe or pro-Black and for Mugabe. There has also been some coverage on the African continent by the major News Agencies such as Panapress and other outlets such as All Africa.
Beyond the continent, international media coverage has been championed by the BBC. Ordinarily, BBC’s coverage on the African continent is quite extensive. That notwithstanding, there is an extra bias, given Britain’s colonial ties with Zimbabwe. For this reason, providing fair, balance, objective and impartial coverage of the crisis has been immensely challenging. BBC is said to focus on white farmers, glorifying the MDC, whilst framing and angling a demonised Mugabe and his government. Other Western media coverage has been provided by Voice of America (VOA), Radio Dutchwelle (RDW), Cable News Network (CNN), Fox News and the Norwegian Press.
The international media have more or less reduced the issues in the crisis to one of “black versus white.” A study entitled, “The African Paradigm: The Coverage of Zimbabwean Crisis in Norwegian Media”, shows that the media gave much consideration to white farmers, presenting the Zimbabwean crisis in racial spectrum and concluded that, “the Norwegian media reduced the complex Zimbabwean issue into a ‘typical’ African story of tragedy and despair.” (Ndlela: 2005). Beyond the broader framework, some selected cases highlighted better exemplify the ethical challenges of covering the crisis in Zimbabwe.
Illuminating Cases of Ethical Transgressions
Recently, a case of alleged adultery was reported involving Archbishop Pius Ncube, of the Bulawayo Archdiocese, an ardent critique of the Zimbabwean government. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), The Chronicle and The Herald, all pro-State media reported and broadcast what would be footage of the Archbishop and the female suspect, a staff of one the archdioceses of the Catholic’s. They were supposedly caught on-camera, and the incident was widely reported, especially by the aforementioned media outlets. It was reported that the female suspect’s husband had hired a private investigator to plant cameras in the bedroom of the Archbishop. He had suspected his wife of having an affair with the Archbishop. With the purported evidence he took the matter to the courts.
A number of issues could be raised. The Archbishop being a public figure, especially the head of a leading moral institution like the Catholic Church naturally attracts a lot media attention. He is assumed to have a high level of morality, especially following his oath of celibacy. An incident of this magnitude would naturally attract public attention, and of course, the media. However, this is not the focus of this illustration. Rather, the focus is on the media coverage of the supposed incident, both from the perspective of the content and framing of the story. It also bridges the Zimbabwe Journalists Code of conduct and the law which prohibits the reporting of a case that is still pending in the courts. Reporting the court proceedings being different thing altogether.
The three media organs that gave wide coverage to the alleged adultery story, could argue in favour of publishing the story in respect of the principles of the freedom to access, collect and disseminate information, and also the public’s right to know. Balancing these principles with moral values, especially within a crisis and polarized environment remains another challenge. The fact that graphic images of the reported incident were broadcast is in itself a bridge of ethical values. A strong remark from the Chairperson of a media-watchdog, MISA-Zimbabwe, noted that, “the showing of graphic pictures of the alleged moments of intimacy of parties allegedly involved in this matter smack off an agenda far beyond normal journalistic reporting.”
It will be interesting as well to know how the media accessed the supposed video recording, and the credibility of the information. There could be a possibility of the information having being “planted” in order to “get” the Archbishop, who, had all along been the “pious one”, while he painted Mugabe the devil with all his criticisms. “The pictures which the state media claims prove the case against Archbishop Ncube are not only disrespectful of the legal processes underway but show a hidden agenda to tarnish the respected reputation and image of the Archbishop once and for all.” The MISA chairperson noted.
“Media practitioners may probe and publish details about the private moral behaviour of a public official where this conduct has a bearing upon his or her suitability as a public official.” Clearly stipulates the respect of right to privacy in Article 14 of the Code of Conduct of the Zimbabwean Media Practitioners. To some extent, the pro-Government media may be argue, was the base of publishing the story. However, in Article 13a) of the same Code of Conduct, the Zimbabwean Law is quoted as stating that, “…a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Trial of cases by the media is not allowed; the media must therefore refrain from publishing articles prejudging the outcome in criminal cases or seeking to influence the outcome of the cases.” This is a clear violation of that provision of the law. It will be interesting to see how the law is going to be applied in this case involving the pro-Government media, as it was or would have been applied to the private media.
At an earlier date Zimbabwe’s main independent newspaper, The Daily News had fallen prey to a legal dragnet, shortly after the passing of the AIPPA in 2002. The Daily News published a story alleging, “That paramilitary supporters of Mr. Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF Party had murdered and beheaded a woman in a rural area for supporting the opposition.” It was later found out that the story was not true. The story was withdrawn as being unsubstantiated and an apology was issued. However, the government proceeded to arrest three journalists; Lloyd Mudiwa and Collin Chiwanza from The Daily News and Andrew Meldrum, a correspondent for The Guardian. Andrew Meldrum, a US citizen who had been living in Zimbabwe for 21 years. They were later on acquitted.
Principles of journalism require fairness, objectivity, impartiality and balance in any story. Strictly adhering to these principles will provide the public with ample information to make judgments. Providing the different sides of a story not only satisfies these principles of journalism, but equally provides an opportunity to apply Aristotle’s Golden Mean, that is, providing two extremes for an appropriate centre point to be determined. Anything short of this is a bridge of, not only professionalism, but poses an ethical challenge. The lack of proper investigation to establish the facts of the story led to the false publication.
However, in the case of the false story, the newspaper retracted the story and acknowledged that the facts were not substantiated. These are means and procedures available within media institutions to correct and deal with such cases. Complaints procedures exist in media organizations, while there also civil defamation provisions in the country as a whole. Ignoring these and attempting to apply the AIPPA that had just been enacted was seen as a way of targeting private journalists and punishing them in ways that would deter others from any critical reporting.
Politicians and media practitioners always harbour strange relationships. They almost always are at each others throat, yet they very much need each order. By virtue of the way society is organised, politicians have the upper hand in designing the rules of the game, and can squeeze and suppress the media whenever an opportunity presents itself. However, the media as well have the capacity to bring the politicians to the lowest level with the power of information. Operating within the socio-political context as in Zimbabwe, where the government wants to maintain the status quo, poses an enormous challenge. It even becomes more challenging when the media have to maintain high level of professionalism and ethical standards in such polarized conflict environment. It is a battle that the media must continuously fight, with courage and resilience.
Bio: Jacob Enoh-Eben is an MA student in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies at the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. He holds a BSc. in Journalism and Mass Communication obtained in 1996, at the University of Buea, Republic of Cameroon, and has an 11-year work experience in the fields of Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention, Early Warning and Journalism and Mass Communication. Prior to UPEACE, he was a Senior Project Officer at the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR), University of Cape Town, in South Africa. Before joining CCR in 2006, he worked for the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), where he was, at different times Coordinator of the Peace Monitoring Centre (the Situation Room) and earlier on Program Coordinator for Capacity Building for Conflict Prevention, Peacebuilding and Good Governance, facilitating coordination and collaboration between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Civil Society Organisations.