By Conrad Nyamutata
Information minister Jonathan Moyo once again enjoined the media to promote the national interests. It is clear that the media-national interests question is still unsettled in the national discourse.
From Moyo’s calls, the assumption is that there are media that disserve national interests.
There is no accepted universal standard of the concept of national interest, so the understanding of the role or meaning of national interest differs from one person to another.
However, if rulers determine the national interest, then that national interest will depend on the subjective notions of those rulers.
Here, the national interest now has its moorings in the national Constitution, couched among other things, in the country’s liberation history.
International relations theory posits that national interest is a relational concept; meaning the interests of a nation-state in the global arena.
Perceptions of other states towards another matter because they determine international relations.
Therefore, national interest is more outward-looking.
The Zanu PF government is concerned about both the external perception of and reactions by other states to events in Zimbabwe over the years.
Understood in this context, the Zanu PF government would want to rope in the media in its foreign policy that appears to be shifting from confrontation to reengagement since the July elections.
The concept of national interest should not be confused with public interest. In fact, as I attempt to illustrate, the two are, at times, seen to conflict.
I would argue, however, that while the local media may be guided by the national interest, their immediate editorial guide is, instead, the public interest. Public interest is an equally problematic concept.
But suffice to say that unlike the national interest, it is inward-looking. It is the Zimbabwean public that media look at as the primary consumers of news as readers/listeners and purchasers.
The media, therefore, decide whether the news they produce is in the interest of that primary public or not. Does the public want to know that farmers have been displaced, killed; Morgan Tsvangirai has been beaten and Jestina Mukoko has been detained?
Does the public want to know about diamond mining, the revenue and how it is being used? The media ask these questions with their immediate audience in mind.
The media report about human rights violations to inform that immediate public; a public that might also be affected by the lack of the rule of law. When the media report about diamond mining, for instance, the main animus is also the public interest.
The assumption is that our minerals are a shared national resource. The Zimbabwean public ought to benefit from the diamonds revenue.
These two examples of reportage (human rights and diamonds) illustrate cases where the public interest and national interest appear conflictual.
In both cases, other states may decide to react with punitive measures, leading to accusations of the media disserving national interests. But it is hardly the case that journalists sit in their internal conferences, select and report stories with Britain or America in mind.
That is the duty of international news networks.
The local media engage, primarily, in legitimate pursuits of matters that affect and interest their immediate public.
Wouldn’t it be appropriate then for politicians to exhort the media to serve, chiefly, the public interest? It is, after all, the same public that the politicians are elected to serve.
It would seem, however, that national interests are invoked to thwart criticism of the government. All media should, like the State media, perpetually sing praises of the government, lest they offend a vaunted liberation history.
This should not be accepted. The media should continue to use the public interest as its primary guide; they are there to serve, first and foremost, the public and not the foreign policy of a country.
If the government is troubled by reputational costs, it should govern responsibly. The media should not defend an oppressive and corrupt regime in the name of national interests.
Of course, journalists ought to report honestly; as they should when a government observes human rights, accounts for all revenue and uses it for the common good. National interest should not be used to silence criticism of a government that does not do so.