Media self-regulation valuable in pursuit of Press freedom

MEDIA self-regulation is a valuable model in pursuit of Press freedom, professionalism and healthy interaction between journalists and consumers of news and information.

By Loughty Dube

The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) is a vital vehicle for the promotion of this much-cherished self-control of the media that places the public at the centre.

In this regard, there will always be need to welcome and encourage debate relating to self-regulation of the media. However, there is every reason for concern when members of the public and journalists abuse the constitutional right to freedom of expression to distort facts and mislead others on processes, interventions and initiatives that are underway to promote sustainable and robust self-regulation.

Two weeks ago, Geoff Nyarota, an experienced journalist who is probably held in high esteem by many for his contributions to journalism in the past, penned two articles that were published by The Herald. The two articles, “Watchdogs of journalism ethics sleeping on the job” and “Dissemination of codes of media ethics puzzling”, made numerous claims against VMCZ which are disturbingly incorrect and false. The VMCZ welcomes constructive criticism from readers, viewers and listeners as well as concerned citizens and other interested parties, but feels obliged to inform the public about deliberate distortions from anywhere.

In the first article where he accuses media watchdogs of “sleeping on duty”, Nyarota claimed that the “VMCZ does not concern itself with challenging newspaper publishers or editors who routinely act in brazen defiance of media ethics that they claim to uphold”. This has no basis. The truth, which the said editors and publishers can easily testify to, is that the VMCZ has over the years engaged and challenged editors from both the private and public mainstream media on numerous occasions whenever issues of ethical transgressions arose. VMCZ has constructively engaged editors and publishers from Zimpapers, Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), and community newspaper editors among others.

All this is on record and those that wish to see the evidence are welcome to get in contact with the secretariat, in addition to independently verifying with the media players in question.

While the VMCZ does not have a megaphone engagement policy with newspaper publishers and editors, newspaper editors have been engaged on numerous occasions in monthly meetings that the VMCZ conducts, including those that we are conducting in partnership with the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum (Zinef). Issues of ethics and capacitating the editors have been discussed in thosecrucial meetings, with key recommendations taken on board.Capacity of the editors to help them address industry challenges are part of engagements we are having with practising editors. Nyarota might not be aware of the engagements with the editors as he is no longer one of them.

The VMCZ website contains numerous statements that the council has issued regarding ethics and professionalism in the country in the last three years.These largely evidence-based statements are meant for journalists, editors, publishers and members of the public. They provide useful insights into how the VMCZ is working to promote media professionalism, ethics and press freedom and how media players are faring against global expectations around the noble profession of journalism and other media genres.

In the same article, Nyarota claims that “even though the privately-owned newspapers are members (of VMCZ), they routinely disregard the ethics of journalism, as dutifully preached by VMCZ and they do so with total impunity”. He usefully acknowledges that VMCZ “dutifully” preaches ethics of journalism, yet this is a contradiction on his part because he also claims that the council, as a media watchdog, is sleeping on duty.

To say private media journalists are disregarding ethics of journalism with “total impunity” is unnecessary dramatisation of matters. VMCZ has handled over 110 complaints in the last three years and the compliance rate in the adjudicated cases is 95 percent. This does not prove “total impunity”.

Thus, Nyarota made this claim with scant respect for truth and factuality. Interestingly, former information minister, Professor Jonathan Moyo, accused him of a tendency to distort facts and peddle falsehoods several years ago after the publication of Nyarota’s book, Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Newsman.(See Link: http://bulawayo24.com/index-id-opinion-sc-blogs-byo-5324-article- Nyarota’s+fatal+errors+Against+The+Grain.html)

The coincidence is worrying for its implications on the public which must always be presented with truthful and accurate accounts of events and developments by the media, of which literary publishing is a part. There is yet another misleading claim in Nyarota’s second article on the dissemination of codes of ethics to citizens that is underway. He states: “In any case, it is surely the scribes who should acquaint themselves with their Code of Ethics, not the newspaper readers.

Likewise, it is the doctors who should abide by the Hippocratic Oath, not their patients.” While it is pertinent for the media to know their code of conduct, it is equally critical that the public, who are the consumers of the information generated by the journalists,have an appreciation of the canons that guide the media. It is parochial for anyone to claim that empowering readers to be able to detect what is unethical in a story is a waste of resources. While codes of ethics and conduct are
produced with constituents of particular institutions as the immediate consumers and participants, there is a universal realisation that external partners must also be empowered with knowledge of those sets of values since they are the ultimate beneficiaries.

The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) some time ago criss-crossed the country taking the Police Charter to the public. The essence was to acquaint members of the public with the nature of police operations, at the same time generating expectations among members of the public around the conduct of policemen and policewomen. These officers may still conduct themselves in ways contrary to the provisions of the charter, but it is clear that the public has been empowered to make complaints based on the provisions of the police document.


The same applies to the dissemination of the code to grassroots communities. It is a supplementary intervention to ensure that the public is aware of how journalists and other media actors must conduct themselves. When transgressions occur, citizens are sufficiently empowered to identify them and take appropriate action in the ongoing process of building a professional and ethical mass media that the VMCZ is leading.

Imagine what would happen if the Hippocratic Oath that guides doctors’ (and nurses’) conduct and which Nyarota is evidently aware of was kept exclusively to the medical practitioners. Clearly, Nyarota would not be able to talk about it. He knows the contents of the Hippocratic Oath, not because he is a medical doctor, but because the medical profession did not keep it a closely guarded secret.

Patients and other people in need of medical help would remain in the dark about the medical practitioners’ duty and obligations to them. The veil of ignorance generated by that would give the doctors and nurses infinite space to abuse patients and other stakeholders. The same applies to the media field as seen through the lenses of media self-regulation. Another set of falsehoods relates to Nyarota’s claimed engagement with VMCZ. In the second article, Nyarota says he lodged a complaint with the VMCZ on May 20, 2015, complaining about an article published in the Financial Gazette where he was “scandalously defamed”.

He also claims to have written again to the VMCZ on May 27 after receiving no feedback from the VMCZ. The VMCZ has not received the complaints that Mr Nyarota refers to on any of the official communication channels that include the following VMCZ emails: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . No messages were received also from the mobile phones 0772125658/9 which are the official VMCZ complaints mechanism channels. Neither was anything posted on the VMCZ website or the official Facebook page.

We instructed our mail service provider to track whether the emails that Nyarota claims to have sent to the VMCZ could have been lost along the way. The result, as expected, is that there was nothing sent by Nyarota to the above official VMCZ platforms. Hopefully, Nyarota did not utilise private communication channels of the VMCZ secretariat to send an official complaint and it would be useful for him to disclose which of the above communication channels he used to lodge his complaint against the Financial Gazette.

In his article, Nyarota claims that VMCZ has been organising partner-funded football matches for journalists. This is yet another claim that lacks evidential merit. The VMCZ has never been involved in and does not fund soccer matches of any sort. It would be useful for Nyarota to provide details about these matches, complete with the names of journalists who are said to have participated and the dates on which the games took place. If we had the resources, we would have been too happy and ready to do so as a way of publicising our media self-regulation initiatives.

Nyarota, in the article, claims many who currently sit on the board of the VMCZ are his personal friends or acquaintances. He names Davision Maruziva (who left the board in 2011), Edna Machirori, Raphael Khumalo, Tawanda Majoni, Oskar Wermter (who is no longer a board member), Cris Chinaka, Tapfuma Machakaire, Sebastian Bakare and Daves Guzha as his friends.

While professionalism requires that you resist the temptation of taking advantage of personal acquaintances to solve
professionally-grounded issues, he could have somehow formalised his engagement with them to ensure that his concerns were addressed. For instance, it is unclear how he never considered formally writing to or calling the VMCZ Chairperson when he felt the secretariat was failing him.

In the article, Nyarota seems to trivialise the translation of the VMCZ code of conduct into vernacular languages. While he views this as a useless exercise, this process has borne the desired results as we have created awareness within different communities around Zimbabwe. Needless to mention, his reasoning around vernacularisation of the code is wrong. He wonders why the Code of Ethics was translated into Shona, for instance, when the “only” Shona newspaper, Kwayedza, is not part of the VMCZ family.

Readers will agree with VMCZ that Kwayedza is not the only Shona medium of communication. The council is forward-looking and realises that, in keeping with current efforts, there is a possibility that all media houses will one day become members of VMCZ. Besides, translating the code into local languages does not imply that those who read it in that language are strictly limited to the language of translation when it comes to news and information consumption. While Nyarota seems to despise those Zimbabweans who communicate in vernacular languages, the VMCZ Board and stakeholders found it pertinent to translate the code of conduct into local languages for easy understanding by respective communities.

The VMCZ in that quest engaged four local companies to print and distribute the translated code of conduct. The code of conduct was translated into three languages namely Shona, Ndebele and Tonga. The four companies were tasked with printing the three venarcular codes of conduct and the English version of the code. The tender process met the VMCZ Procurement regulations and was applied accordingly. That puts to rest his claim about biased tendering relating to the printing of the codes.

There is fatal myopia in the writer’s thinking that it is useless to distribute the code of conduct in rural areas such as Binga as newspapers do not reach those areas. Nyarota claims that when his IMPI outfit visited areas such as Binga the locals complained that they were not receiving newspapers and other news products. It is ironic that the VMCZ secretariat was notified of your article criticising the VMCZ by members of the Binga community who were attending the launch of the code of conduct, after receiving the information from their mobile phones.

The VMCZ has done its research on issues of information dissemination and technological mobile penetration.Rural communities are accessing news and other critical information on their mobile phones and through the sms news services provided by the mobile companies. With the technological advancements rural folks are able to access news on their mobile phones in real time, just like their urban folks. The villagers, just like the majority of Zimbabweans, do not need a hard copy newspaper to access information anymore. Besides, it is undesirably fatalistic to assume that outlying communities will never be able to access print news. It must be noted, in addition, that the communities also have access to radio, even though this is still constrained, and they read books as well as watch drama and theatre, which are also forms of media that VMCZ is concerned with.

Nyarota also highlights in detail the complaint he filed with VMCZ against the Daily News over the use of his picture in the headline “We are back.” He also talks of subsequent appeals he lodged after the VMCZ Media Complaints Committee ruled that the Daily News did not breach the code of conduct when it published the picture. Subsequent appeals committees all upheld the original decision made by the Media Complaints Committee.

The third and final appeals committee that heard Nyarota’s appeal also upheld the Media Complaints Committees decision but then went on to make a recommendation to the Daily News to clarify to the public who its editor is. Contrary to your statement that “this time they decided that the newspaper owed me a clarification and must therefore publicly set the record straight”, the true position was that the committee did not make such a ruling but they upheld the media complaints committee’s decision but made a recommendation to the Daily News to notify the public who the newspaper’s editor is and explain that Nyarota was not the Editor of the Daily News.

In actual fact, this was going overboard as a visit by any discerning reader to the Op-Ed section will tell them who the editor of a newspaper and his team are. While VMCZ accepts criticism on the work it does on the complaints mechanism, the council will not be deterred in pursuing its mandate of creating a professional and accountable media in Zimbabwe. The VMCZ will always engage with stakeholders and media organisations towards working on creating a professional media.It also dreams of a society where members of the public and journalists — former and currently practicing — will not use their right to freedom of expression to peddle falsehoods based on personal interests. Our Code of Ethics is clear on this.

●Loughty Dube is VMCZ Executive Director

 

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