Journalists are a closed network who usually share a lot despite the seeming ly polarised media environment in Zimbabwe.
This sharing of a lot also extends to the dominance of male journalists in almost all newsrooms, a matter maybe so humdrum to be worth writing about.
The dominance of men is so overwhelming that one can count on their hands the number of female journalists in various newsrooms. This dominance has an even more dark side to it that we as journalists rarely want touched or discussed — that is, sexual harassment of female journalists.
To many of us, male journalists, this is an old and tired issue, an accusation that has no evidence. In instances where evidence is provided, male journalists have tended to gang up and protect their own kind. The most common defence being the victim was asking for it by her actions, dressing, way of talking and so forth.
An old woman I met at a civil society network meeting in Bulawayo a few weeks ago approached me bemoaning how her daughter, now into public relations, was hounded out of the newsrooms, by insistent demands for sex by a senior male colleague.
I have been in instances where very able and senior female journalists have almost been looked at from the cleavage downwards. Statements have been made by colleagues about how they look and who they are dating these days. A senior politician in the MDC-T party known for his motor mouth shouted at a senior political editor a few weeks ago, calling her a prostitute for simply being asked for an interview.
This is probably a betrayal of what dominates the mind of this politician rather than a reflection of the career or behaviour of this female colleague.
My colleagues in this profession are powerful people, because they shape the perspective of society on many issues and indeed set the agenda on what citizens talk about daily and weekly.
This agenda may not necessarily be theirs as journalists, but it is nevertheless an agenda and by the choice of words, selection of events and platforms used to share this information, journalists play a critical role in building social awareness, debate and consensus on many issues.
It is on this point that journalists are, therefore, expected to have a more than average appreciation of gender equality and this including the scourge of sexual harassment. It is for this reason that journalists and media houses are expected to be above average when it comes to respect and promotion of equality of sexes, more so the protection of female journalists in the same measure we journalists cry for human rights and relevant protection at the workplace.
This subject has been talked of a lot, but there appears to be no major shift hence the report by the Federation of African Media Women (FAMWZ), Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and Media Monitoring Africa, titled Power, Patriarchy and Gender Discrimination in Zimbabwean newsrooms, launched this March.
The research carried out early this year received no coverage in our mainstream media, maybe a reflection of our attitude as male journalists to this subject.
The report notes that gender discrimination in our newsrooms, more so the scourge of sexual harassment, remains under-reported and institutionalised.
By being institutionalised, the report does not make a claim that newsrooms have “formal policies” that promote discrimination, but that the cultural orientation, the ethos of the media in Zimbabwe is predominantly male and patriarchal.
And that as males we indeed bring our machismo into the newsrooms and look at every female as fair game. Let me add that patriarch is two-way traffic as the female journalists or media workers are boxed in to accept what society has taught them and to accept what the profession expects of them. Apart from sexual harassment which is the more debauched of the many forms of discrimination, female media workers reportedly face financial reward inequality and work-promotion discrimination.
Ninety percent of the respondents both male and female acknowledged during the research that gender discrimination is a problem in newsrooms, yet nothing concrete seems to be happening or changing. My editor colleagues will certainly not be happy that the research notes that close to 80% of perpetrators of gender discrimination, be it sexual, work-promotion or work assignments related, are editors in our newsrooms.
These are matters that the Editors in their various forums that include the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum certainly need to take on board and discuss openly.
The buck ultimately stops with the Editor. He or she is the most senior and powerful individual in any newsroom. By demonstrating intolerance for gender discrimination, the Editor can set a practice that spawns a cultural transformation of newsrooms as far as the treatment of females is concerned.
While this subject matter remains emotive with as many male journalists quick to dismiss the subject as an inconvenient accusation, it still remains a matter that needs attention and action. It does not take much to change the culture in our newsrooms; it starts with an individual and if that individual is the Editor the better.
As a profession that is at the fore front of information dissemination and highlighting social ills, it is also necessary that journalists be beyond reproach on these issues. Not that there won’t be issues of harassment of all sorts against female colleagues, but at least the culture and policies will be against the perpetrators rather than hero-worshipping them as conquerors.
I am fully aware that the media hates having the lenses focus on them, but then as many people, including the old woman I met in Bulawayo, will not believe what journalists say when all they see are perpetrators of gender discrimination. In essence, journalists short-change society by behaving the same as the bad elements in our society.
Gender discrimination might appear a distant matter, but as many other issues that journalism battles with including its advocacy role in a developmental society, its claim to be the voice of the voiceless will mean far less if we don’t treat women in the profession with respect.
If this is changed, it makes it easier for journalists to advance other quality issues outside cultural prejudices.
Rashweat Mukundu is a Zimbabwean journalist. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org