4 October 2013

Zimbabwe: Of Old-Fashioned Journalists


Back in 2011, American journalist George Nicholas was said to be the oldest journalist in the world. At the age of 92 he had been wielding the pen for an astounding 66 years.

More recently, on September 1 this year, veteran British television interviewer David Frost, died at the ripe old age of 74. He worked brilliantly as a broadcaster for more than 50 years.

At the time of his sudden and tragic death, he was preparing to interview British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Back in the United States, CNN's indomitable Larry King remains active at age 79 as a writer and television journalist. Born in 1933, he conducted his first interview in 1957 and has, therefore, worked continuously as a journalist for 56 years.

Here in Zimbabwe, the oldest practising journalist is Bill Saidi. Now aged 76, he is one of the country's most brilliant writers.

Notwithstanding this, the editor of an otherwise respectable weekly newspaper had the temerity last Friday to refer uncharitably to a defenceless fellow journalist, 62 years of age and a multiple international award winner, with 35 years of experience in the profession, as a "media dinosaur and old-fashioned journalist".

Readers of The Zimbabwe Independent were obviously perplexed as to the identity of the target of Editor Dumisani Muleya's vitriolic and ruthlessly attack.

His newspaper never reported in its news columns on the incident he was now so maliciously commenting on.

Muleya was referring to none other than myself, following the no-holds-barred remarks that I had made earlier in the week on the severe decline in the standard of journalism in Zimbabwe over the past few years.

I spoke at a meeting convened at the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting by Prof Jonathan Moyo, the re-appointed minister, and his deputy, Supa Mandiwanzira.

Muleya never challenged my assertions at the meeting in question. In fact, I did not hear him utter a single word by way of contribution from 10am, when the meeting started to 4pm, when it finally closed.

Back in his office he set out to attack me without identifying me. He, of course, knew that those who attended the meeting would immediately recognise the target of his venomous outburst.

I spoke passionately and no doubt angered colleagues by insisting that the standard of journalism in Zimbabwe was in shameful state of decline and that there was genuine need for all stake-holders to join hands in a bid to redress the situation, primarily through proper re-training of practitioners.

George Charamba, the Permanent Secretary in the ministry hit the nail right on the head when he identified the calibre of some of the current crop of journalism trainers at institutions such as the Harare Polytechnic as the core problem.

I explained that poor ethics and lack of professionalism were the major symptoms of the decline in national journalism standards.

I spoke animatedly about my current pet subject -- the phenomenon of banner newspaper headlines which bear absolutely no resemblance to the articles over which they are ostentatiously printed.

I knew I would possibly incur the wrath of colleagues but I felt fully convinced that the time had finally arrived to call a spade a spade if Zimbabwe's journalism profession was to be rescued from its current doldrums and what more timely occasion to do so than at the time of the changing of the guard at the recently renamed Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting.

I spoke at length about a related matter of grievous concern, the rapid increase in the number of cases of defamation currently going through the courts. Because his own organisation, Alpha Media Holdings, is one of the culprits whose papers are being sued left, right and centre for defamation by aggrieved citizens, Muleya felt obliged to use the powers vested in him by his position to hit back by characterising me as a "media dinosaur and old-fashioned journalist".

But, as ably demonstrated at the beginning of this article, journalists don't normally become professional dinosaurs.

While some mature with age like good wine, quite often others become failures early in their professional careers.

They may be overtaken by technological advances in the media, but that does not adversely affect their own ability or proficiency as journalists.

Journalism is the activity, or product, of journalists or others engaged in the preparation of written, visual, or audio material intended for dissemination through public media.

It is the art of crafting news or information for public consumption, not the means of disseminating or communicating the news to the public, which in many cases may not involve journalists.

While the "bewildering digital media revolution" may be fast changing, essentially the basics of putting together an article remain unchanged, except perhaps in Zimbabwe, where reporters have transferred their reliance on the sources of the information they use to build stories from knowledgeable informants to the growing legion of analysts, many of them people of clearly dubious credentials. Sometimes the so-called unnamed analysts are none other than the journalists themselves.

Whether news is disseminated via Tweeter, Facebook, radio, television or a newspaper has no bearing on the quality of journalism or writing skills. Whether news is crafted in a start-of-the-art newsroom has no real bearing on the quality of journalism or quality of information disseminated.

For example, early in September the Zimbabwean media fraternity congratulated Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) for the remarkable achievement of its flagship daily newspaper, NewsDay, after it won the prestigious Highway Africa Most Innovative Newsroom Award in Grahamstown, South Africa.

News reports on this event stated that NewsDay, which has "a prominent mobile and web presence and is credited as a leader in accelerating the digital first strategy in line with world trends", had been nominated for the award under the Telkom-Highway Africa New Media Awards Innovative Newsroom Category.

Vincent Kahiya, group Editor-in-Chief of AMH, which publishes NewsDay, The Independent, Standard and Southern Eye, said: "This recognition is ample evidence of our commitment to embrace the fast-changing technology in gathering, processing and presentation of our content.

"The media industry is on an irreversible path towards change hence AMH's adoption of the Digital First Strategy."

I have not been able to ascertain whether Kahiya disclosed to the august gathering of Africa's eminent media personalities that earlier that week his company had endured the painful ordeal of having to suspend Constantine Chimakure, the editor of the same NewsDay that was being celebrated that night.

The Daily News, the newspaper's rival, reported dutifully: "Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) yesterday suspended the editor of NewsDay, Constantine Chimakure, after the daily published two articles that the newspaper itself admitted suffered 'ethical infractions'.

"Chimakure was suspended over two stories carried in the paper on Wednesday and Thursday titled 'Mbeki speaks on Zim polls, chaotic land reform', and 'Mugabe offers Tsvangirai VP post.'"

Both articles were vehemently denied by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former South African President Thabo Mbeki. In fact, the analyst who told Chimakure's gullible reporter that President Robert Mugabe was about to appoint former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai as Zimbabwe's new Vice President needs to have his head thoroughly examined.

Editor-in-chief Kahiya promptly chipped in.

"We feel the stories fell short of the basic journalistic standards set in our ethics guidelines; how we put accuracy to the test, the AMH Code of Ethics and the AMH Pledge whose tenets are fundamental to our operations."

But The Daily News had the last word on the matter.

"This is not the first time that NewsDay has run into editorial headwinds in the few years that the newspaper has been on the street.

"Chimakure is the fourth editor of the paper in three years after his predecessors Barnabas Thondlana, Vincent Kahiya and Brian Mangwende were removed unceremoniously by the trigger-happy proprietors of the paper."

The Daily News reporter omitted to mention that the equally trigger-happy proprietors of his own newspaper had unceremoniously and in quick succession removed both myself and John Gambanga from our positions as editors soon after its re-launch.

If there was full adherence to professional and ethical practice of journalism in some of the cases, Zimbabwe's long-suffering journalists would never be unceremoniously removed by trigger-happy proprietors of newspapers.

I speak as one who has twice been unceremoniously removed by the trigger-happy proprietors of the Daily News itself.

It is totally unacceptable when supposedly well-respected editors are treated like manual labourers by newspaper companies, while young and inexperienced journalists cheer on at the prospect of promotion into positions that, in fact, offer them no protection when their own day arrives.

Far from my contributions at the September 17 meeting being cavalierly dismissed as "such aberrations and self-serving noises by some media dinosaurs and old fashioned journalists seeking relevance in the midst of fast-changing and bewildering digital media revolution", these are the very serious issues of professionalism and ethics that I tried to highlight in the presence of the newly appointed Ministers.

Zimbabwean publishing companies clearly do not subscribe to Muleya's misplaced opinions on journalism and age.

The Daily News, recently introduced a new column, "Bill Saidi on Friday'. Born in 1937 Saidi has been writing since he submitted his first article for publication in Nathan Shamuyarira's original African Daily News back in 1959.

"In which world does this Muleya fellow live?" asked Saidi, hastily adding, "You can quote me on that."

Nevanji Madanhire, Editor of The Standard, a sister publication of The Zimbabwe Independent, invited me to spend a week acting as Guest Editor of his paper's September 16, 2012 issue.

"My team and I feel greatly honoured to have Nyarota as our first Guest Editor. We are all excited to have the opportunity to tap into his experience and expertise," Madanhire told his readers.

Coming to The Zimbabwe Independent itself it is no secret that the real power behind the boisterous Muleya's editorship, is none other than Iden Wetherell, the paper's former editor.

Incidentally Wetherell was two years my senior at the University of Rhodesia back in the early seventies.

I insist, as I stated at the meeting, that if Prof Moyo now wants to build bridges and extend a hand of reconciliation to the journalists of Zimbabwe in the national interest the gentlemen of the press should let bygones be bygones and respond with maturity by grabbing that hand.

The editors of The Daily News have already turned a leaf, it appears. Before the harmonised elections they never referred to Moyo without affixing the epithet "serial flip-flopper" before his name.

After July 31 this obnoxious and clearly unethical' practice was hastily abandoned.

If the truth be told, it is the misplaced overzealousness of youthful, inexperienced and therefore impressionable journalists, coupled with the questionable decision to upgrade the dubious utterances of one mysterious Baba Jukwa to front-page news, that contributed more than the alleged but so far unsubstantiated allegations of vote-rigging, to the heavy defeat of Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC-T at the hands of President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF at the last polls.

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