Friday, 1 February 2008

Journalism: Lamentations to a profession that died

Journalism: Lamentations to a profession that died

A week before the Zanu-PF Extraordinary Congress, I played reluctant host to a young journalist seeking to make a confession. His road to my office had been a trying and circuitous one, punctuated by many detours, many misses, many turns, until finally he made it. Still his tribulations were not over.

He had heard about my fiery temper. He knew he had wronged me enough to invite it. I did not. Still he did find any safety in my ignorance. I am not so sure why, but in the media world, I am perceived as high-handed.

The rumour is I wield a very swift hand, one made swifter and a little deadly by Japanese senseis (instructors) I have gone through. It is true I have my own share of human temper.

So does everyone. It is also true, on a few occasions I have used this faculty to remake the world a bit, to my liking. While once in long whiles I have pulled handsome fights, created a few gaps in a couple of mouths, broken a few limbs, I swear I did pretty little of this to merit this dubious fame.

Holier than a pontiff

So this reluctant confessor dragged himself to my office, courage and pride limping. He cut such a pitiful image, too paralysing to summon even an iota of my anger. There I sat, an expectant pontiff before a sinner of Tony Blair’s proportion (he is now a catholic, many thanks to President Mugabe, his backhanded idol).

Past niceties of introductions, he cut straight in. And soon, the horror, the horror! Right before me was one of the many ghost writers feeding into websites that have ruined the good image of the Republic. And that of those governing it. Before this heinous contract, his publishing employer had folded up.

But not his burdens of raising his family, burdens which seemed to magnify and multiply with each day of unemployment. "Inzara mukoma," he underlined, plaintively. For once I felt like validating my reputation. "I even wrote on you, using a false name to cover my back. I hear you punch hard." I do, and maybe I should, this honest bastard! Thankfully discretion overrules valour, and I sit there — most reassuring, calmer, holier than any pontiff that ever said Amen.

I hear how for two long years, this man has been working with a foreign government in a propaganda war against Zimbabwe; how this long relationship has been ruined by non-payment for dishonest work so diligently done.

He has not been paid. He has not heard from the paymaster who lives somewhere in Lutton, only a few days from Christmas. How is he supposed to manage? His children have not eaten a hot meal for days. They expect new apparel for Christmas. His anger mounts and conveys him to my office, hoping for some solution.

Trading traitors among us

For this money, he has mounted daily pilgrimages to the paranoid structures of this foreign power. He has met that government’s local point-man — a below-forty young graduate, previously with Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, previously with Swedish International Development Agency, now handed over to this foreign government in a friendly act of coordinating efforts for "a new Zimbabwe".

Still no payments done; still no firm commitment. He threatens to escalate things, such as by spilling all beans to the Zimbabwe Government. Curiously, I seem a detour between that foreign fortress and the Zimbabwe Government.

He adds that many more such ghost writers are just as unpaid, just as upset, and as ready to spill the beans. The man looked genuinely unpaid, besieged by the demands of an expectant family struggling somewhere in a high density suburb to the West of my office. But beyond his predicament, I needed soaking detail, and am determined to prise it out of his skull, whether round or smashed. I am given a whole roll call of the many he works with in this dark enterprise against the republic.

The list cuts across titles, both public and private. It encompasses some freelancers, a real miscellany of personages feeding from this one trough. But to me all that is a red herring.

I need in precise terms the nature of the interface with this foreign power, via its mediating local staffer.

Worse than Allende’s Chile

I work on the environmentals, until the man is relaxed and trusting. He starts dropping precious nuggets which I cannot repeat here, but all indicating a complex programme of psychological warfare which only Allende’s Chile may recognise. Even then, Allende’s age was well before America turned the internet into a civilian portal. It got me thinking.

We have trained so many Zimbabweans. We now have so many interpreters in our newsrooms. Yet we seem to have lost so many of them who now stand beholden to hostile foreign powers. How so? My informant went much further.

"Mukoma hazvinetsi. Zvinodikwa nevanhu ava [commissioning foreign powers] tinozviziva. You just look for stories

which damn the system; which confirm their expectations, serves and uphold their mischaracterisation of the Zanu-PF Government.

Where you cannot get such stories, you make them up. I am told how the money gets to each and every one of the players, often using the well-meant home-link banking portal. As his confidence mounts, more is yielded: "You have two categories of stories: those which you originate; those for which they provide leads.

"They are always harder in respect of the latter, for these are the most damaging ones, the most needed." Like getting the interior of the President’s new home! I am told of how hostile intelligence services provide these leads.

"We have a whole line up of sources we always turn to carry our story to predetermined ends. If you doubt this, check all Congress stories against this list of sources." I was given the full list of authorised and approved knowers, and cross-checked with Congress copy. Good gracious me, to the name! Are they also on payroll? He cannot quite say, and I know why.

Swelling the lie, authenticating it

But I also got confirmation on a phenomenon I had always noticed: internet-driven snowballing effect to a given falsehood. You push a lie through one website; the lie gets an echo through sister ghost websites who quickly pick it up and run with it, at all times lacing it with authenticating comment. Until it graduates and matures into the mainstream media. That way, it becomes a "truth" against "Robert Mugabe’s mad regime".

It is even more helpful if reputed agencies like Reuters, AFP and AP, pick it up. And where these cannot, you can always push it through the UN-related but western sponsored IRIN. Much later, the story is rehashed by a local NGO which lifts it from this web-based cesspool into "a human rights review/update report".

The report is then launched with much fanfare in Johannesburg or London. That way the lie is refreshed and given the weight of "a study". NGO reports constitute third level authentication. After these rituals, a case for human rights abuse has been made, ready for some tabling in Addis, Geneva or New York.

One begins to understand how fiction is slowly and carefully turned to fact; understand how manufactured fact soon transfigures into a foreign policy goal and a virtual human rights charge sheet against a sitting Government.

Newsrooms as safe houses

Not far back we had a story from one newsroom where an irate junior reporter challenged the authority of his editor, reminding the poor editor how his income far surpassed his, many times over.

The insouciant journalist did not need an editor who constantly barked instructions to him, a news editor who severely edited his stories. His income came from elsewhere. The furious editor showed him the door. He quickly and happily walked through it, seemingly to oblivion.

But no, to this day he eats well, eats better than his editor. Editors will tell you there is nothing unusual about this encounter which is becoming a daily affair. We have a new breed of reporters for whom newsrooms are safe houses, journalists who are employed elsewhere but who need formal newsrooms for cover. But I have also watched as journalists who can’t even construct a decent "intro" have hit fame, have ended up well decorated abroad.

I have seen journalists who have committed great offences against the profession, but get hailed and crowned as shibboleth of the profession. Soon, they are airlifted to work from some sumptuous apartments in a foreign country, to live happily ever after.

How much ?

Whichever way you look at it, Zimbabwe’s complex politics badly need new language, new writers, new texts. Real Zimbabwe has simply become ungraspable, very hard to reach. Between Zimbabwe and the rest of the world stands this phalanx of foreign paid journalists for whom inventing untruths brings fabulous rewards, all US-dollar denominated.

Old journalism used to insist on four "Ws", and a lonely "H". The four Ws were who, what, where and when. The lonely H was an occasionally how. Not much has changed since. But today Zimbabwe journalism challenges all these lessons, and places on record its strange contribution to theories on the craft. It aggressively tells the world that well before the four "Ws", journalism must answer the all-important HM: "How Much?"

Not many in the media admit to this. It does not matter. Nor does it take away the one despairing fact that for Zimbabwe journalism, the purse dictates to, and remoulds facts. Or the obverse, that the purse factualises falsehoods. I challenge anyone in the media to contest this lofty point.

What is worse, we are talking about a foreign purse. Zimbabwe journalism is being paid for, and is driven by foreigners, dirty foreigners standing in for foreign regimes and interests. Increasingly, we are having to face that grim fact that newsrooms have become extensions of the arcane world of spooks, the grim fact of newspersons becoming spooks themselves, often playing the high game of espionage and subversion. This follows Walter Kainesteiner’s foreboding announcement a few years back, that US foreign policy on Zimbabwe would challenge Zimbabwe’s sovereignty through journalists. Also mentioned were church leaders, which is why we have Christian Alliance and the Bakare factor in national politics.

I hope the reader recalls that the US’s latest so-called Democracy Report underlined this strategy, even assessing how it has panned out since.

When news died

What is the result? Devastating! News has died, amidst a multitude of shaping occurrences. News has become synonymous with carving Dickensian vignettes out of politicians who mean well for their people. Far from being figures of truthful witness, journalists have become principal tools for privileging naked, sponsored lies, all calculated to move foreign policy goals of states hostile to the Republic.

Patriotism is un-journalistic. Defending the national interest is betraying Pulitzer. As if Pulitzer was a black Zimbabwean, Nehanda’s contemporary and fellow comrade! The boundary between party manifestos and journalistic features daily wears thinner and thinner.

Read The Zimbabwean and tell me what you make of it. The industry now has damning prototypes. Grace Kwinjeh, William Bango, Pedzisayi Ruhanya and Luke Tambolinyoka smash the myth of the media as an estate in its own right, one counterpoising the first three. They personify journalism hired by degraded opposition politics, journalism deeply embedded in anti-state politics. Today many in the industry see these characters as personifying the acme of excellence.

How sad! Geoff Nyarota is equally interesting. One time editor of the Daily News, Nyarota bred many who now crowd Harvest House, and worship the lame Tsvangirai. Or who hang about Harvest House, unsure. He minded the hatchery quite well, and gave the British cause its manpower. He revealed the genetic link between the newsroom and sponsored open dissent. But he also means much more.

His own confessions (done safely from abroad) proudly proclaims him as a co-conspirator in mediated regime change scenarios. Who says journalists wait to cover events? You can also ask Munodawafa at Liberators Platform. When news takes too long to be made, just jump into the fray.

Gyrating to a foreign drum

Then you have our Grace Mutandwa, our Sam Kaerezi, our Sizani Weza. In them journalism gets directly ridden by a foreign cause. I could go on and on, dramatising possibilities and distortions which each career implies, indeed dramatising the monetary futures which Zanu-PF’s fallout with the West has carved for this profession. At the end of it all, it is a sordid tale of a great betrayal, of interpreters who followed the rhythm of a foreign drum.

We have a new generation of writers who bed and swap causes far better than harlots; a new generation of editors who have become austere and unforgiving pimps that punctually and dutifully keep the stoeps to busy propaganda brothels.

Newsrooms have become redder, dimmer and foul-smelling anterooms to propaganda whorehouses. The profession today smells fetid, carries the repelling aroma of failed ethics. The wonder is why in this my father’s house falsehoods get so sensuously licked, so prolifically mated.

In what Zimbabwe calls news, truth writhes and wriggles, impaled on concrete blocks of vacuous, but well-backed lies. And the whoremaster sits atop this steaming mount, distributing honeyed patronage to our journalists, most of whom are too eager, too ready even for perfunctory advances and courtship. Cry the beloved profession. Icho!


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