Journalism versus media activism: Geoff Nyarota
By Geoff Nyarota
Journalistic precedent was set in Harare on Friday, March 27, when journalists mounted an unruly verbal onslaught on a company executive in a bid to disrupt his press conference before they walked out on the event altogether.
The press conference, where journalists representing various media organisations volubly confronted Tawanda Nyambirai, legal counsel at Steward Bank, a subsidiary of telecommunications mogul, Strive Masiyiwa’s Econet Wireless, was the culmination of a standoff between the bank and The Source, a hitherto not widely known online news agency.
Armed with a High Court order, Steward Bank had conducted a raid on March 26, on the newsroom of The Source, a Reuters International affiliated online business news website.
The media fraternity was angered that Steward Bank staff, accompanied by the Deputy Sherriff and police details, raided desks and computers in the newsroom, ostensibly in a bid to recover allegedly illegally obtained documents that were used by The Source to construct two articles that the bank claims were defamatory of itself.
Following a media outcry over the raid, Steward Bank convened the press conference where Nyambirai attempted to deliver a press statement to explain the bank’s position on its controversial raid.
Journalists covering the event instead demanded that he apologise to them first for having allowed his organisation to violate journalistic rights of access to information.
All hell literally broke loose when Nyambirai, accompanied by the bank’s acting chief executive officer, Lance Mambondiani, refused to tender the requested apology.
Then in a sudden departure from prescribed journalistic ethical practice, the assembled journalists vociferously confronted the hapless Nyambirayi, drowned his voice in a barrage of protest before they broke into “Povho yaramba zvemadhisinyongoro” (The people refuse to accept willful disorder), a protest song popular among ruling ZANU-PF party activists seeking to reprimand alleged sellouts or other malcontents.
In a situation of absolute pandemonium the journalists bombarded the bemused Nyambirai, with a barrage of questions, laced with heckling and outright intimidation.
In the forefront of the onslaught were two prominent media personalities, Foster Dongozi, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and Kumbirai Mafunda, chairman of the Zimbabwe Chapter of the otherwise highly regarded Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).
A video went viral on social media, accompanied by a preponderance of readers’ comments that accused the journalists of unruly and unethical behaviour at a press conference where they denied a bank official freedom of expression, while failing to provide the public with coverage of an important, if controversial, event of immense public interest.
The ethical standards of fairness and objectivity are significantly compromised or eroded when journalists display open hostility towards a news source, as happened at the Meikles on that Friday.
The news conference is a facility that affords the convener, perhaps an individual, a government department, a bank or other corporate organisation, an opportunity, often desperately needed, to present a case or position, to the press for dissemination to the public.
It usually has three components – the statement by the convener, the questions posed by the journalists and, finally, the responses to the questions.
Whether or not the original statement or the explanations are not to the liking of the journalists present, their function is merely to capture the sentiments expressed for communication to the public at large.
What set the Steward Bank press conference apart from the usual was the poisoned atmosphere prevailing in the wake of the bank’s raid on The Source newsroom. It is this dynamic that obviously motivated the attendance of players that normally do not have a role to play at the regular conference – ZUJ and MISA.
Press conferences are normally organised for engagement with representatives of newspapers, the electronic media and social media outlets.
Neither ZUJ nor MISA is in the business of disseminating news to the public. Yet their representatives at the highest level were in the forefront of engaging with Steward Bank at its news conference.
Both organisations have other avenues at their disposal for engagement with ostensibly errant corporate organisations such as Steward Bank when they are perceived to be trampling on the rights of journalists carrying out their mandate of disseminating information to the public.
The ZUJ secretary general, Dongozi said after the fracas that his organization’s involvement was a protest in solidarity with media practitioners at The Source and was a clear message to everyone that press freedom violations will not be tolerated.
He said: “Our message to Econet was clear. We demanded that Econet concedes that their actions were a violation of Press freedom and to unreservedly apologise for this before any further interaction.
“We are going to handover to Econet a formal complaint and petition against this blatant abuse of journalists and the media.”
ZUJ thereafter issued the said formal complaint to Econet. The union should have limited their intervention to this commendable line of action, while leaving their members and other journalists to cover the press conference in peace.
It goes without saying that by its very actions ZUJ denied Econet and Steward Bank their right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in Section 61 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. It should be noted that The Daily News subsequently gave ample coverage to Nyambirai’s statement.
MISA Zimbabwe’s mandate, on the other hand, is to promote diversity, pluralism, self-sufficiency and independence in the media.
“Our vision is of a region where members of society, individually or collectively are free to express themselves through any media of their choice without hindrance of any kind.”
Before Nyambirai had even started to read his statement the assembled journalists, along with the ZUJ and MISA officials, denounced him for refusing to start by apologising to them for his bank’s invasion of The Source’s newsroom.
Under the heading “Surreptitious Gathering of Information”, Clause 19 of the Code of Conduct of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) states:
“Media practitioners should use open methods of gathering information in which they clearly identify themselves as media practitioners. Generally they should not obtain or seek to obtain information or pictures through surreptitious methods such as misrepresentation, deception, subterfuge or undercover techniques.”
The VMCZ, the purveyor of ethical standards of journalism and protagonist of journalistic self-regulation in Zimbabwe, did issue a statement on the confrontation between The Source and Steward Bank.
“The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe is outraged by Econet Wireless’s raid on The Source,” the statement said.
“The raid in our view violates not only citizens’ rights to access information but also infringes on media freedom as enshrined in the Constitution of Zimbabwe.”
The VMCZ statement cunningly avoided making any reference to the issue of “surreptitious gathering of Information.” Neither did VMCZ make any reference to the aberration by the journalists assembled at the Meikles Hotel where they did not only disrupt the proceedings at a lawfully convened press conference but also denied Steward Bank the opportunity to disseminate the content of their press statement.
Media organisations such as ZUJ, MISA and VMCZ must lead by example and desist from playing to the gallery, while sacrificing journalistic principles on the altar of temporary convenience. Above all, journalists need to distinguish between the strictobligations of the ethical practice of their profession and the vagaries of media activism.
Finally, Econet went to absurdly extraordinary lengths to recover from The Source documents containing information that the website had already placed in the public domain.
Geoffrey Nyarota is a Journalist and author. He chaired the just ended Information and Media Panel of Inquiry. He can be reached on: [email protected]