20 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Elections Increase Politicians' Media Appetite

THE relationship between the media and politicians is a complicated one based on mutual dependency.

The media, often referred to as the fourth estate, is seen by some as being crucial to the functioning of a healthy and fair society. But it is during election time when politicians run to the media.

According to David Brewer, Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the country's third president, once remarked: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."

While Jefferson may have been right in suggesting that journalists are more important to society than politicians, this could be the reason politicians in some societies have a love- hate relationship with journalists.

But what is clear is that the relationship between journalists and politicians can have a significant impact on the functioning of a fair and just society, with politicians making decisions and acting on behalf of the public while journalists scrutinise those decisions and report the implications to the same public. That is a system with credible checks and balances.

In Zimbabwe, the issue of a free press providing checks and balances is an emotive one. There are tall tales of politicians who have repeated whole ceremonies for the benefit of television news crews, who will have arrived late and some stories of newspaper reporters being made to wait for ages for their electronic media counterparts, by politicians all too keen to appear on television.

More so, the media landscape is often seen as divided between being pro-ZANU-PF or anti ZANU-PF while some politicians alienate certain media houses they think would attack them, despite persistent calls for a free press.

Now, with the country in an election mode, some aspiring and established politicians are already jostling for media space, albeit targeting media outlets they think are more likely to trumpet their political ideals.

Yet still, some politicians have been labeled media shy, unwilling to avail themselves for one-on-one interviews to show the electorate that they are worthy of office.

Critics say this crop of politicians, whether in Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) or President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF, would be shunning the media to hide their inadequacies, while some have seized the opportunity to showcase themselves.

For instance, Deputy Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs, Obert Gutu, who is an MDC-T Senator for Chisipite and Jessie Majome, deputy minister of Women's Affairs, Gender and Community Development and MDC-T legislator for Harare West, are not media shy and even use social media to reach out to the electorate.

In ZANU-PF, many government ministers have critically availed themselves to journalists even from the media that is perceived as against the liberation war party, while the same can be said about Welshman Ncube's office bearers. Whether this will last after the elections remains to be seen.

But critics say some in the MDC-T have displayed disdain for the media yet they need the same media outlets especially in this election season. Nothing tempts reporters like a chance for an exclusive interview. That's free publicity. But media manipulation will never stop as long as there are people seeking elected office.

Glenn Halbrooks, an American media expert, in a book on how politicians can use the media to win elections, says that media and politics will always have close ties.

"Politicians need media to get the exposure they need to win elections. Reporters have no choice but to cover the people chosen to lead government. But in election years, people who work in media should prepare themselves for the manipulation they'll likely face when a politician's quest for office runs head-on into the media's desire to seek the truth," writes Halbrooks.

The chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media, Settlement Chikwinya this week told The Financial Gazette that ministers from his party, the MDC-T would not shun the media.

"I don't think any minister from my party has shunned the media unless you have specifics. All our deployees in government are there to serve and publicising our activities is at the core of our values as we engage with the people that gave us that mandate. I believe ministers have at times busy schedules but to say they shun the media I would not want to believe it," said Chikwinya.

Political analyst, Lovemore Fuyane, said those shunning the media do so out of a lack of maturity. He said there are some media houses that still report in a partisan manner.

"Perhaps it's a case of the egg and the chicken where we are in desperate need for media sector reforms all round, regardless of their leaning, while at the same time we require some sort of education about democracy for our politicians. The press is not there to sing the praises of our mighty politicians but to rather inform the public," said Fuyane.

Hopewell Masola, another political analyst, said in a democratic dispensation, the media is supposed to provide checks and balances on the way a country is run to safe-guard it from ruin.

"Politicians normally look for opportunities to showcase themselves in the media when all is well. When things go wrong, seasoned politicians will either find solace in the offensive 'no comment' approach or literally take cover in the trenches at the mention of the media," said Masola.

He said those who run away from the media do so to avoid being paraded in their political nudity and feelings of inadequacy as partners in the Government of National Unity.

"For as long as they do not know what is happening in government, the MDC-T ministers may continue engaging in self-preservation behaviours by maintaining a dignified silence towards the humiliating, fun-poking and incisive media. The dignified silence of the MDC-T ministers may be irksome to the media yet to the MDC the silence could be a sign of a political party playing its cards very close to its chest. This could be damage control after so much damage has accrued in the way of the intrusive media lampooning the sexual escapades of Tsvangirai," said Masola.

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