Journalism’s ideal is to strive for a full, accurate, contextual search for the truth.
This has been brought into sharp focus by two recent events which have dominated the media in this country.
The first one is about Reserve Bank top official Munyaradzi Kereke’s criminal and civil defamation suits against The Standard; the second being the media frenzy over Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s off-on marriage to Lorcadia Karimatsenga Tembo.
In this vein, journalists can become their own worst enemy by not living up to the ideal to strive for a full, accurate, contextual search for the truth.
There can be no blanket denial that there are bribe-taking “brown envelope” journalists or extortionists posing as journalists. This can be compounded in some cases by low salaries and lack of standards in the media profession.
But it’s all the more imperative to be above board in this country where journalists have lately been charged with criminal defamation by politicians and other highly connected individuals who are not forthcoming when approached in the first place to respond to allegations being made against them.
Broadly there are four categories to defamation: accusing someone of a crime, imputing serious sexual misconduct (e.g., chastity of a woman); casting adverse comment on someone’s ability to conduct business or trade; or that someone has a disease, for example a sexually transmitted disease or mental illness.
The fact that the statement is true is an absolute, and perhaps obvious, defence to defamation. If, after either printing or saying something about someone, you can prove that what has been said is truthful there will be no liability for defamation.
There is also the aspect of fair comment regarding a defence that is available to people who have expressed an opinion in relation to a matter of public interest.
For example, if the national media has accused a high-profile celebrity of having an extra-marital affair it will not be defamatory to say that you think that it is true.
In the case of Kereke, he took out whole page advertorials in rival papers outlining his allegations against The Standard. It can be said it was an attempt to have the case tried in the court of public opinion by making unsupported or one-sided allegations against The Standard to the rival media, and he was using what were actually court pleadings as Press releases.
The Standard responded in the best possible way — by publishing the story behind the story for all to read and judge for themselves.
Having been burnt in the court of public opinion, Kereke took the matter back into the court chambers where it rightly belongs and filed a $5 million damages lawsuit over the story behind the story.
But high-profile lawsuits mean that the alleged defamatory statement will be repeated on numerous occasions and may be subject to further publicity as a result of any media coverage, which has the effect of making the injurious statement better known than it was to begin with.
Put simply, a plaintiff could end up with a more damaged reputation than if he had not sued at all. So, it’s in Kereke’s own interests that he is being guided by the honest need to clear his name and not a cover-up because the truth will out – and set free either him or The Standard, period.
But the problem is that the laws too often shield public officials — even if the statements against them are true.
The interests of the powerful are protected while the underlying allegations that led to the defamation charges often fail to be investigated. The very foundation of our legal system is that the law should work for us all, not just a select few, but they put obstacles all the way.
When newspapers go on and publish, the next thing is they have police sent to arrest the concerned journalist and editor – and invariably charged with criminal defamation where the accused is immediately taken into custody, thus inducing fear in him, discouraging him from pursuing the matter further; rather than civil defamation, which is notoriously difficult to prove and also because most editors avoid this to protect their reputation, besides the heavy cost in legal fees involved.
A good law addresses a need; is readily understood in purpose and in operation; affects and protects everyone; and reflects what is best about us — not the worst.
A bad law is shown by the low rate of conviction — as happens with criminal defamation.
But there are no such problems within the State media for two main reasons. First, ruling politicians, with the State media firmly in the pocket, are never ever under any threat of exposure by the same.
Second, the State media is, instead, used by the ruling class to defame political opponents. Enter Jonathan Moyo with a scurrilous, scatological opinion piece titled Morgan’s open-zip and shut-mind approaches in this week’s Sunday Mail.
It was not professorial, but pure gutter, crudely referring to MDC-T leader Tsvangirai’s sexual troubles.
Having been at the receiving end of his dictatorial stint as Information minister, State media editors still have residual fear of Moyo and wouldn’t dare remove obvious defamation and crudity in his articles.
Moyo writes: “Promiscuity is very dangerous, be it political or sexual. A promiscuous politician or sexual partner cannot be trusted.”
Is that an unintentional, subconscious or Freudian slip as Moyo himself has shown spectacular political promiscuity, bouncing in and out of Zanu PF?
He goes on to make spurious linkages between Tsvangirai’s sex life and his suitability as a leader. Just to remind you, readers, in 2002 scandal hit closest to Moyo in the person of Alum Mpofu.
This was at a time the Moyo-headed ZBC had the Moyo-appointed Mpofu as its CEO and gay-bashing was the order of the day in State media. Within months of his appointment by Moyo, Mpofu was caught in a compromising position with another man in a bar toilet.
Should we then impute that Moyo had anything to do with this “after-hours and extra-mural activity” in the same way he links Tsvangirai to “sex orgies (which) are the order of the day” in the MDC-T as Moyo claims?