Media freedom: The power to build or destroy!

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Recent progress in media reforms in Zimbabwe is indeed worth celebrations. There is now freedom of speech but guided optimism and justified cynicism drives one to ask: Are we going to have freedom after the speech?
Time will tell. Somehow there is an urge to celebrate the moment. Even with the full awareness that a lot still has to happen before people believe this is real. After all, when you have the freedom of speech, you may still find yourself fighting for freedom after the speech.
Journalists, active citizens, and all those who care not to allow a few self-serving individuals to do as they please in positions of authority have lost their freedom after voicing the concerns in Zimbabwe. But the point remains — Zimbabweans now have the legal basis upon which to have multiple narratives shared across the breadth and depth of our nation.
This is very imperative, considering that media is one of the critical instruments in the making or the breaking of the multiple healthy conversations and resultant relationships in any given prosperous or growing nation. Examples of the Rwandan genocide and Hitler’s anti-Semitist crusade in Nazi Germany are illustrative of how the media was used in turning neighbours against each other. Adolf Hitler wrote in his book, Mein Kampf in 1953 that, “All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those toward whom it is directed will understand it.
Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.” The result was the most regrettable universally accepted atrocity — the holocaust.
Curiously, in a classic case of the use and the complicity of journalists in spreading hatred and propaganda, a trial is unfolding far from the spotlight in Kigali. Its outcome may one day ring out around the world.
Three journalists Nahimana, Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza and Hasan Ngeze are accused of founding and controlling a radio station, and the latter for editing and publishing a newspaper with information that cultivated, directed and facilitated the efficiency of the Rwanda genocide.
Some analysts have said that this trial focuses on the question: Can freedom of speech degenerate into genocide? Or put differently, can journalism kill?
Their defense has even argued that “what is really on trial here is the freedom of the press and intellectual freedom”, they even accuse the United Nations of defending press censorship.
Well, one totally believes in the freedom of press and the intellectual freedoms that come with it. Consider the consequences of an uninformed or ill-informed electorate going to the polls — think about the consequences when information flows are curbed or manipulated in times of political crisis or ethnic strife.
The results are bare for all Zimbabweans — between 10 000 to 20 000 people died like mosquitoes in Matabeleland and Midlands in ‘a moment of madness’, over a 1 000 lives are lost to cholera as a result of cabinet directive to takeover water reticulation and sewerage management, over 700 000 people find themselves without food, shelter in the middle of a cold winter, again due to an ill-advised government and uninformed public!
If Zimbabwe had responsible journalists who work to promote a true sense of ownership within society and therefore give meaning to the concept of citizenship the well-documented cost in terms of human and material resources could have been avoided.
Quality decisions that respect human life and are based promote inclusive policy conversations are the difference between prosperity and poverty. When mistakes are hidden behind a veil of lies and a crusade of propaganda, it is difficult to manage the damage and avoid human tragedy.
Therefore media manipulation, abuse of media freedoms as well as an unaccountable media should be the focus of citizen vigilance.
Already there is an intensifying electoral mode in Zimbabwe and the media may again become a key tool in the systematic polarisation and mobilisation of citizens based on hatred and fear.
Propaganda, lies, overstating, misinformation and sensationalism masquerading as information flood the media to such a point that intellectual freedom becomes intellectual dishonesty.

Thabani Nyoni is a community organiser and activist. matshelela@gmail.com