AS many players, institutions and sectors jostle for a place and role in the current quest for national dialogue, there is one distinct sub-sector whose role should not be overlooked. These are community newspapers.
Community newspapers by their very nature have the benefit of being accessible, affordable and available to a growing number of communities across the width and breadth of the country. With their principle goal being to provide access to information for citizens, particularly those in under-represented communities, community newspapers work to accord their readers their constitutional right to information as well as freedom of expression and free Press.
Community newspapers also work to promote, advocate for and mobilise for social justice, social accountability and social equality and equity among the citizenry; as well as for plurality and diversity in media voices and ownership.
Due to their proximity to the communities they serve, community newspapers are best placed at a very local, immediate and a relatively cost effective level to articulate the needs of the people; represent them and their struggles; and provide them with both a voice and platform to participate in matters that concern them.
As a country in turmoil — with an unrelenting economic strife which has seen the impoverisation of the masses; political volatility characterised by repression, heavy-handed policing, militarisation of levers of power: as well as a tattered social fabric needing healing and reconciliation on many levels including political party lines, tribal lines and, to a considerable extent, class struggles — Zimbabwe needs all hands on the deck.
A specific need to highlight upfront is that of the national dialogue to be broad-based, grassroots-anchored and not elitist in approach. An elitist approach is too narrow to speak to the multi-pronged challenges and cocktail of stimuli presenting in the populace from all its walks of life.
Within the greater scope of national dialogue, community newspapers can effectively contribute to the national discourse on recovery, progress and development, peace-building, reconciliation and healing using specific strategies discussed below.
Information provision: Providing access to information enables citizens to make informed decision about how they respond to the challenges of the day. Such information could include, but not be limited to, early warnings; sensitising the public on issues presenting; investigating, understanding and interpreting the causes of challenges.
Educating the people: Community newspapers can educate communities about available options and encourage debate on the issues, providing space for various players and stakeholders to present their views, or even offering alternative solutions for presenting strife. Incisive and in-depth analysis can go a long way in helping educate stakeholders including policymakers, the general masses, and where applicable conflicting parties.
Providing a channel to hear and be heard: Community newspapers no doubt provide communities and various stakeholders a channel through which different parties can be heard and can communicate with each other.
Identifying main players: Adequately informed community newspapers can provide the context, background and dynamics of the challenges or conflict and effectively identify the main players and their interests. This helps to accurately communicate and present different positions or various players for the benefit of the readers.
Protecting parties and the public against abuse: Reporting events as they happen in an accurate, non-partisan manner, exposing human rights violations, showing the consequences of policy discord, of conflict or other challenges can go a long way in protecting the public from abuse by duty bearers; abuse from misinformation or even fake news; or even abuse via social injustices and inequalities. By the same token community newspapers can also respect the confidentiality of sources, bearing in mind that such protection of source is vital, especially during conflict.
Overlooking the role and function of community newspapers can play in mobilising for dialogue and moving the same forward, powers-that-be miss out on a great opportunity, which can very well benefit the nation in the grand scheme of progress and development as well as healing and reconciliation at various critical levels.
Jasper Maposa is chairperson for the Community Newspapers Association of Zimbabwe (CNAZ).