Media integrity in the era of populism

IN an era of populism, the importance of media integrity has become increasingly vital. Populist movements challenge the assumptions and values of mainstream society, and in the midst of this challenge, the media serves as a key source of information and opinion formation.

Currently, we are in that kind of context politics. The world over has moved to populist praxis. 

According to Tendai Biti teal (2020), Open democracies, where opponents respect one another even as they contest for power, are under threat from the rising tide of populism.  In this stark new world, political opponents are enemies to be destroyed by fake news, and independent institutions are being used as tools to perpetuate power. Just as in the cases of Donald Trump in the United States, Vladimir Putin and the rhetoric of return to Soviet era.

In Zimbabwe, our political context can be termed to be in the era of propaganda. The ruling Zane PF party uses such to demonise opposition and maintain its control over the base, while opposition has used the same to outmanoeuvre its splinters and ensure they remain popular.

In all these actions, democratic principles have been subverted, political systems have been eroded and political malpractices e.g coups have been sanitised.

The biggest tool used to execute all the above is the media. Because of the historical capture of state media by the administration in Harare, the information avenue of our discourse has, therefore, been polarised.

This has compromised the integrity of several media outlets and journalists.

Media integrity refers to the principles and values that guide the media in the dissemination of information. Journalistic integrity is essential to ensure that the media reports the news impartially and objectively.  With media integrity, journalism provides an informed and vibrant public sphere that gives a voice to all. It is essential when tackled by the rise of populist movements to hold on to these principles.Populist movements rely on the creation of an "us against them" narrative that pits two groups against each other. The media can often become entangled in these narratives, amplifying their rhetoric and sensationalising stories.

Without media integrity, sensationalist stories and highly unfiltered articles can detract from news authority and widespread trust. It can also create a toxic echo chamber, where viewers are trapped in filter bubbles that further reinforce existing beliefs rather than provide a wider and more objective outlook.  A good example is that on the debate around the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of all dominant sides, none of them gives the objective verdict that the war exists in very deep historical cord of expansionist politics, which is a facet and form of imperialism.

It is also a threat to smaller countries. The dominant media spaces at the moment are just ceased with justifications (some saying Russia is right – others say USA is right — others justifying Ukraines move to join NATO).  Some of have went on to inappropriately use ideological inclination as an entry point to taking sides. Many among my comrades in the communist movement side with Russia without interrogating extensively the harms of expansionist politics and the impact they have on the sovereignty of smaller/developing democracies.

Leftist media itself is not questioning the perpetual threat of militarism on global justice. Anyway, this is a debate for another day. With media integrity, media outlets can report the news without bias or sensationalism, and separate fact from opinion. This helps to maintain public perception of news outlets' reliability and underscores the public's trust in the accepted wisdom of the media. However, populist movements tend to discredit the mainstream press and dismiss any news that contradicts populist dogma.

They label the media as biased and inaccurate, leading to a decline in trust and heightened polarisation.  They launch accusations of media outlets being "fake news" to silence journalists and opponents. As is happening in Zimbabwe today, pro-establishment analysts dismiss the gold Mafia expose and call it an election smear campaign, while others say the criminal enterprise is a sanctions-busting initiative and the President’s Press secretary, George Charamba threatened journalists over the issue.

They even went on to label Al Jazeera News group as western-funded entity pursuing an agenda to undermine the sovereignty of Zimbabwe. This then divides public opinion on accountability along partisan lines.

In such a climate, the importance of media integrity cannot be overemphasised. Media integrity requires journalists to protect their independence, uphold ethics and standards, and report the news with accuracy and balance. Without media integrity, the role and authority of the media in society is undermined, leading to consequences that pose threats to democracy, the rule of law, and the free press. Dictators will find reason to censor and gag the media, which will destroy society as it weakens the media that serves as the pillar of checks and balances.  Therefore, promoting media integrity in the era of populism requires a concerted effort from media organisations, individuals, and society as a whole. It is crucial to prioritise accuracy, transparency, diversity, accountability, education, and collaboration in order to uphold the principles of journalism and ensure that the public is informed with truthful and reliable information.

In conclusion, media integrity is more important than ever in an era of populism. It is critical to maintain a reliable mode of information that upholds the principles of journalistic integrity.  As we continue to face growing challenges from populist movements, media outlets must remain stalwart in their commitment to unbiased and factual reporting. It is time to demand nothing less, as our democracies and press freedoms depend on it.


  • Kanhenga is a 25-year-old public intellectual and LEADER OF THE Zimbabwe Human Rights Monitor Platform.


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