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The meaning of a newspaper

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When I was about nine years old I started reading the daily newspaper on a more regular basis.

It was not that I sought the paper but the deeply ingrained culture of our people was always to buy the paper in the morning and pore over it. If your old man was religious about his newspaper (whether for politics, soccer or horses), could you turn out otherwise? Does an apple fall far from the tree?

But in reading the Rhodesia Herald I would ask my old man what the words “terrorist” or “assault” or “injured” meant. I did not need to ask about the grisly images of war that occupied the front page.

So my long-life love for the newspaper started with that ever-present curiosity of all children, what is happening? Why are they doing it?

I have thus followed the sprouting of new newspapers in the past few months with keen interest.

Each paper claims to represent something that is critical to the nation. Let’s look at some of the papers’ mottos:

“Your news, your views, your life”

“Everyday news for everyday people”.

“Telling it like it is”

“A voice for the voiceless”

From the above we can deduce that the papers claim to speak the truth, they speak to the people (not the elites only), they represent the views of those that do not have platforms to be heard and that they are essential to our lives.

But others go further and I had a chuckle as I read a news report quoting the editor at a new paper claiming:

“We focus on telling the Zimbabwean story in the context of our sovereignty benchmarked on the liberation struggle.” Hmm?

I suppose then that a paper that is born out of a perceived need to defend a nation against its perceived nation shall cease to exist when that threat is dimmed to have been dealt with?

Or am I wrong and there will be no demobilisation like in 1979 – the enemy is permanent within and without the borders of the sovereign State? As someone put it, history is a bad student – it keeps repeating itself.

In any case newspapers claim to be part of a critical communication system that occupies the public sphere and gives citizens the platform to engage with their government and with other stakeholders.

Underpinning this assumption is that we have an opportunity for the Habermasian ideal of rational discourse – an opportunity to reason together, find each other and build a peaceful and prosperous future.

The other deeper assumption is newspapers are about a country called Zimbabwe and they care deeply for the fate of this State. Sociologist Benedict Anderson calls the nation an “imagined community” and argues that it “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.

A nation is both imagined and physical (it occupies a geographic space). We feel we have much in common, languages, cultures, rituals etc.

One of the central ways in which we make sense of the nation and feel we belong is via the media.

Every morning urban Zimbabweans glean the newspaper, some watch television, others listen to the radio and others log onto the Internet and scour the Zimbabwe-related websites.

In this everyday ritual we imagine the nation that we feel we belong to. But there is, of course, a major problem.

When you take newspapers and other media and all the public and private discussions you can begin to identify the dominant discourse.

It is the discourse of intolerance – the talk of people that actually think they rule a country by divine right (an amazingly archaic conception we thought had died with the feudal era when kings and queens claimed to be God’s representatives on earth).

Reading and listening to their hate-filled rhetoric it becomes clear we don’t belong to one nation. It seems the only guardians of the nation are those with liberation struggle credentials.

In all this madness people have tried to vote with their satellite dishes but there is only so much foreign media you can consume. Media has to relate to your everyday life and is better in your own language.

The Machiavellian political commissars know very well that allowing three tiers of broadcasting – public (not state), private/commercial and community – to function well in Zimbabwe is to create conditions for citizens to interact more and have multiple points of information that would enable them to make sense of the world around them.

That, of course, is dangerous in society ruled by lies and fear.

Afraid of people knowing the truth and desperate to hold onto power, the media of hatred attempts to induce mass hysteria as if there is an impending invasion by some army elsewhere.

They remind me of what American filmmaker and actor, Orson Welles, did in 1938 in a radio drama called The War of the Worlds.

The play was presented as series of news bulletins and spoke of an alien invasion of the United States of America by Martians. Of course some people did believe an actual invasion was taking place.

In Zimbabwe we are hit from all ends in print, radio and television with similar hysteria – “the regime changers are here! Let’s fight!”

Over the past decade on top of the hysteria have been lies and you can only imagine how many stories have been deliberately manufactured.

When we started experiencing fuel shortages a certain paper would tell us that a ship carrying oil had failed to dock in Beira because of rough seas or even that one Tony Blair had diverted the ship!

For now we can only hope our newspapers will live up to their claims to deliver everyday news to everyday people, to tell it like it is and to be the voice of the voiceless.

Our people deserve the truth and a decent conversation.

Kenge!

Chris Kabwato is the publisher of www.zimbabweinpictures.com

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