Hopewell Chin’ono: A dying media and a complicit political elite: Zimbabwe’s journalism disaster
By Hopewell Chin’ono
Many have asked me why our media is as bad as it is today, it is not a question that can be answer with one magic sentence.
It is true that we have a crisis in journalism, today’s reporters will not leave names like that of Tonic Sakaike or Geoff Nyarota, save for a few like Dumisani Muleya and Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi who have excelled in what they do beyond our borders.
There is no one answer to why we are where we are today because today’s Zimbabwean media mirrors the complexity of the country’s own problems!
There is something that we keep missing, our economy’s death killed with it everything in almost every profession, journalism included.
When someone is poor, extremely poor as the average journalist is, he or she becomes susceptible to being bribed in what we call brown envelope journalism.
Stories for Dollars I call it, they become a sitting target for politicians and business people, and they write stories in exchange for money.
We know who they are and this has been going on for decades, this terrible dark art was refined post 2000 when journalists openly chose sides not because they ideologically believed in them but for survival.
It is no different to young doctors who perform back door abortions here in Harare or warehouse workers who sale goods off the back of a Delta or Afdis truck, it is a sign of the economic times.
The people who run the journalism and media associations are not creative enough either to do things that can enhance the quality of life for their members.
They also reflect the quality of leadership that we find in today’s newsrooms because that is where they come from.
I had lunch at my home in 2013 with a newly appointed Minister of Information, Prof Jonathan Moyo and the then World Bank Country Director, Dr Mungai Lenneiye.
Moyo wanted to pick and share ideas on how the television sector could be transformed in line with what was supposed to be an imminent program of digitalization.
Mungai Linneye had the international financing perspective and I had the television and media background, a story for another day.
However Prof Jonathan Moyo looked at the many bottles of whisky and wine on my bar and asked one telling question.
“Mune zvinhu here umu shamwari or its tea?” (Is that real alcohol or the bottles are filled with tea?)
When we were growing up in the townships mothers will take the empty bottles of whisky or brand and fill them up with tea and use them as ornaments so one could assume that there was alcohol when it was actually tea.
That question saddened me as it exposed me to how people thought of my profession.
It was a reflection not just of what Moyo thought about us, but it was a reflection of how the average person thinks of journalists as poor and struggling.
That is the entry point where corrupting media personnel starts and because many are indeed struggling, they succumb to that poisonous and yet professionally skewed attractive temptation.
A struggling young man or woman working for state media will break the professional ethics code to carry on receiving that pay cheque, and so too will a poor journalist working for private media.
Poverty is a tough thing to live with especially in a country like Zimbabwe, it forces many to do anything to survive.
How can a 40-year-old journalist renting two rooms in Kuwadzana take on the likes of Mthuli Ncube and Emmerson Mnangagwa with the same confidence that Christiane Amanpour deploys when interviewing Donald Trump and many other world leaders?
That is why our political leaders get angry when they are asked deep and meaningful questions on international television, they are used to mediocre journalism.
The types that asks, “…is there anything else you would like the nation to know your Excellency?
So it is in the best interests of the political, business and religious elites to keep journalists poor in order to control them.
I saw with my own eyes editors from both the state and private media receiving bribes from Walter Magaya at his offices when I was co-producing a documentary on Pentecostal churches for eNCA.
That is what poverty does to people who ordinarily should be the people’s torch that lights in dark corners of corruption.
Then we have the issue of training, our training is so bad that within the current crop of journalists, you won’t get the Geoff Nyarotas, Dumisani Muleyas, Haru Mutasas, Tsvangirayi Mukwazhis, Hopewell Chin’onos or Mathanda Ncubes.
Journalists who go beyond the borders and make a mark and are peer reviewed winning professional awards year in and year out.
People who have never been into a newsroom, let alone make a name in journalism or win any award run our training institutions today.
Now this has two problems, they don’t understand what is expected and needed in those newsrooms and the students don’t hold them in high esteem.
When I read journalism at City University, I was taught by veteran award winning journalists like the great Colin Bickler of Reuters.
I was in awe of my lecturers because they had done it all, so I knew that I was under good tutelage and I aimed to be as good as my Professors or even better.
It does something to you mentally, it makes you feel that you can’t fail as a journalist when you have been through the hands of such great women and men.
So because the academic academies where journalists are training have been politicized, they end up with lecturers who are thoroughly incompetent but are only there because there are friends of those in power and running the ministry of information.
We have great media academics like Professor Bruce Mutsvairo, Dr Winston Mano and Dr Pedzisayi Ruhanya but they have been blocked from coming home to teach in preference of mediocre trainers with NO global exposure and who are not published.
Then there is the issue of internship and on the job training, we have blind men and women leading students into doing the same bad practices.
We only have one broadcaster that is terribly run and it is one of the worst broadcasters on the continent.
How do we expect to get a current ZBC to produce journalists that can compete on the global arena reporting for CNN or writing for the New York Times?
I got my in-house training at the BBC under the legendary Robin White and I ended up working with the biggest news companies in the world that included ITV News and the New York Times.
Nobody from today’s ZBC can cut the grade required at CNN and yet African broadcasters like SABC, eNCA and KTN continue to produce quality journalists that are hired by the CNNs and BBCs of this world.
The third aspect is professional and international exposure, our local journalists only operate in Zimbabwe unless they are working for international media.
It is important to see how others do things and to also compete with the best on the international stage, we are inward looking because our politics is also inwardly wired.
The other issue is about leadership, the ministry of information has a powerful hand in shaping media policy and determining the path of local media and news production because it is in charge of all state media houses.
A journalist last ran the Ministry of Information in the 1980s when Dr Nathan Shamuyarira was Minister of Information Post and Telecommunications.
His approach like everywhere else was political but he also understood the professional side of the media arena.
He set up Radio 3 for a particular reason, he was trying to stop the youth of a newly liberated Zimbabwe from listening to Apartheid radio stations like Radio Jacaranda.
Today we have the likes of Energy Mutodi supposedly providing that leadership to an industry that is in dire straits.
When the post 2000 Robert Mugabe governments were faced with the same problem as Shamuyarira faced with the emergence of SW Radio and Studio 7, they resorted to jamming the radio signals of those radio stations.
They also black listed the radio personnel working for those foreign-based stations such as Violet Gonda and Georgina Godwin from coming into Zimbabwe.
Instead of creating an attractive alternative to the foreign-based radio stations, they took the hammer and they continue to do so in their approach to everything.
If Robert Mugabe passed on today, ZBC will not be a source of historical stock footage because they have not been archiving it.
They don’t even have a prepared obituary for the founding father if he dies like what other professional television stations have.
When I did my journalism fellowship at CNN in 2008, I watched George Bush’s obituary, he died this year.
They also have Robert Mugabe’s obituary prepared, they have obituaries for all prominent people, the day they drop, it will be on air immediately.
Understanding all these issues requires a well-trained and experienced mind.
So our young journalists are not getting that quality leadership in the newsrooms and as such, we continue to produce mediocre journalists.
The last issue I will raise here is about lack of a reading culture, our journalists do not read and it comes across in how they write and tackle complex issues.
They rely on press releases that they do not interrogate, that is why they constantly “steal” Facebook posts and publish them as news.
Generally our country has a reading problem but journalists cannot afford not to read, it is our must do pursuit if we are to understand the world and the issues that afflict it.
How does a journalist who is not well read tackle a University of Oxford Professor like Mthuli Ncube on economic issues?
I would have liked to share more insights, but I have written an extensive piece on media in Zimbabwe for the Good Governance Africa research and advocacy journal.
I will share it here when it is published and I hope that it will be a small contribution in understanding our media problems and more importantly how to solve them.
I will end by saying that today, the comedian called Gonyeti of Bustop TV produces better journalism than ZBC and most of our journalists, that is a huge indictment on our journalists that a comedian has now become a source of credible news.
Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning Zimbabwean international Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker. He is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and a CNN African Journalist of the year.
He is also a Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Africa Leadership Institute.
Hopewell has a new documentary film looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe called State of Mind, which was launched to critical acclaim. It was nominated last week for a big award at the Festival International du Film Pan-Africain de Cannes in France.
You can watch the documentary trailer below.
Hopewell can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter @daddyhope