Exposing policy flaws central to developmental journalism

Tendai Ruben Mbofana

LATELY, there has been a noticeable resurgence in calls —more specifically from the Zimbabwean government officials — for media to focus more on what is termed “developmental journalism”.

The latest call was by Information ministry permanent secretary Ndavaningi Mangwana, while making a presentation this week at the Zimbabwe National Defence University.

Of course, we in the journalism fraternity are fully aware of what exactly those in power would be demanding — a compliant and subservient media, which solely pays attention to the government’s “developmental projects and programmes” — without ever holding those in authority to account, or honestly critiquing these policies, or investigating and exposing any nefarious activities.

All that is expected from the media is parroting whatever is expressed by the government, and portraying everything it does as good for the country and people.

Such “developmental journalism” creates a media that “sees no evil, hears no evil, or speaks no evil” about the ruling establishment — even when there are glaring incidents of incompetence and mismanagement, as well as looting of State resources — all undeniable counter-developmental and anti-people.

In fact, it goes without saying that, for any genuine development in any nation to take place, there is need for those in authority to be made answerable to the people they lead, ensuring the faithful stewardship of national resources, and religiously adhering to the principles of the rule of law, justice and fairness.

Surely, what “development” can a nation talk about in the absence of such tenets?

Being reduced to mere propaganda tools can never truly be described as being “developmental”.

As such, it may come as a shock to those in power, and even our colleagues in the media industry that — that the concept of ‘developmental journalism’ was actually suggested as a way of holding governments accountable to their citizenry, as opposed to the popular narrative of reducing journalists to mere mouthpieces.

This is a challenge faced by our noble profession, predominantly because of State-controlled media houses.

“Development journalism” was conceived in the 1960s at the Press Foundation of Asia (PFA) by Filipino journalists Alan Chalkley and Juan Mercado.

They were mainly concerned about the media focus on reporting government Press releases and quotes — but, giving little attention to detailed analysis, interpretation, or evaluation of development projects, policies and problems.

Their concerns led to Chalkley and Mercado organising seminars at the FPA to train journalists in the art of “development journalism”.

Without going into unnecessary detail - as this is not a thesis or dissertation – in a nutshell, the aim was for reporters to offer critical evaluation and interpretation of development plans and their implementation.

In other words, initially, the idea of “development journalism” was contrary to what we were later to witness, especially in despotic regimes as in our own Zimbabwe — where such leaders appropriated and perverted this term to mean singing the praises of those in power, by showing how “successful” they have been governing.

These self-serving, usually oppressive leaders, by so doing, actually took journalism back to that which Chalkley and Mercado were against — that of media that simply highlighted whatever the ruling elite instructed.

That is why today, what is now being called “developmental journalism” largely centres on following government officials and only parroting what they say, and showcasing what they package as “success stories”.

There is a serious lack of critical analysis, evaluation or investigation into what is really taking place under the surface — attributes necessary in holding those in authority accountable to the people who placed them in power, and key to any meaningful development.

Only when the government itself decides to “reveal” some anomalies do we finally witness mainly State media acting as if they are being critical and investigative.

A case in point being the several government programmes that were clearly flawed from the onset — the most recent example being the much-touted “emergency road rehabilitation programme”.

When privately-owned media was exposing the shoddy work by some of the companies contracted to perform this work, as well as questioning how such entities were awarded the contracts in the first place — the State-controlled media was deafeningly silent.

As a matter of fact, these subservient mouthpieces unashamedly merely parroted the laughable government narrative that there were “saboteurs, enemies of the State, and regime change agents” going around the country digging up newly-resurfaced roads, in order to discredit the good work of the Second Republic.

Surely, can anyone, in all seriousness, ever call that developmental journalism?

When companies benefiting from taxpayers’ money — intended to develop our country, and uplift the citizenry’s livelihoods — are abusing and misusing our resources through such deplorable substandard workmanship, should true development journalists not be the first to expose this?

Only when the government finally realised and admitted that they could not hide the truth anymore and were increasingly finding it difficult to defend their ridiculous story did we start seeing State-controlled media following suit “exposing” the shoddy roadworks — only after they were told to write about it by the government.

That is not the type of development journalism such pioneers as Chalkley and Mercado had envisioned.

Imagine how many millions of tax dollars would have been saved, and the problem of shoddy work quickly stopped in its tracks — had State media practiced real “development journalism”.

Yet, those calling themselves “patriotic” and experts on “developmental journalism” were complicit in the looting of national resources, and protecting substandard work.

As can be clearly seen – those in privately-owned media, who hold those in power accountable and closely scrutinising how State funds are being employed — are the real development journalists and patriots in this country.

True development can only be realised when the government is held to the highest standards, acts of corruption fearlessly exposed, as well as programmes and policies always placed under the microscope.

In the absence of such a media — which should be the eyes, ears and mouths of the ordinary people, and not of the political elite — there can never be any meaningful development in any country.

Tendai Ruben Mbofana is a social justice activist, writer, author, and political commentator

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