Who is profiting from negative reporting?

Haru Mutasa
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Not so long ago, Aljazeera correspondent Haru Mutasa was denied a visa by one Western embassy ostensibly because of lack of a guarantee that she would return home.

By Ranga Mataire

While it is the prerogative of any country to give or deny a visa to a particular individual, many observers interpreted Haru’s denial as some kind of reprisal for a tweet the journalist posted on her twitter handle.

In her tweet, Haru had derided a UK newspaper for its inaccurate reporting about an “army crackdown” in Harare. Haru challenged Zimbabwean media to pause and ponder why European nations “are pushing (a certain) narrative” on Zimbabwe.

Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Mr Nick Mangwana, responded: “In the 2nd Republic our default has always been to clear foreign journalists to practice their trade in our country, notwithstanding that some of the reportage we received is deliberately unfair and dishonest. We hope the same courtesy will be accorded to our own professionals.”

For journalists that take their craft seriously, the past few months presented a chance for reflection on how Africa, and their country, is framed.

Haru’s case points to a predictable attitude by the West; they do not take kindly to any critical voices from Africa that challenge the hegemonic influence of the North over the South in terms of information flow. Their narratives must never be challenged.

An honest inquiry of how news from Zimbabwe is framed to suit a certain abiding narrative will reveal that some local journalists, NGOs and opposition political parties are the major purveyors of negative reporting. Theirs is an ecosystem that feeds off the perception of perpetual crisis, so they must work overtime to sustain it.

The Western media, NGOs and opposition political parties can be forgiven for peddling and rehashing certain stereotypical depictions of the country. After all, they are following their own countries’ interests. However, local journalists are expected to be more nuanced.

Yet, we saw a systematic onslaught, driven via a clear strategy; first, deny the MDC’s evident role in fanning violence. This is why we did not see any of them reporting on Godfrey Sithole, the MDC MP for Chitungwiza North, openly telling people to loot shops. His case was only reported following his arrest, and the reportage cast him as an innocent, law-abiding democrat.

Second, pretend that there was no looting, and claim that these were peaceful protests being put down by a “repressive regime”, as if this was ever denied the opposition, which had as many marches as it wanted in 2018?

Thirdly, and far more insidiously, the plan involved inventing stories that buttress their narratives. We were told a journalist, Elizabeth Zimunda, had been shot dead. She did not exist. None of the media NGOs spoke out against the lie. Even local journalists were mum. The reason? It was in line with their narratives.

One other favourite strategy of some local media is to create a sense of conflict. Many journalists are unable to report anything outside of factional wars. So, where conflict does not exist, they create it. This is how we ended up reading about a non-existent feud between the Minister of Finance Dr Mthuli Ncube and Reserve Bank Governor Dr John Mangudya.

Western media already steeped into the Joseph Conradian “monkey” narratives clutches at all this inaccurate, negative reporting as validation for their inherent perception of Zimbabwe.

Why have our local journalists been so gullible as to supply cannon fodder for the West to perpetuate tired tropes about Zimbabwe and Africans in general? Do our media know that Western media will always follow their flag on foreign policy? On Africa, historical baggage, political and economic interests determine the West’s reporting.

African students of journalism are not taught that freedom of Western media is restricted by national laws and the various agenda that influence their reporting of news.

While people like Hopewell Chin’ono take every opportunity to wax lyrical about the CNN, BBC and other such other media houses as the paragons of good journalism, the truth is that none of the Western media care a hoot about us.

The Western media’s reporting on Ethiopian Airlines, where the airline is being blamed for Boeing’s faulty planes, tells you that the West will always defend its own interests. Yes, they have the money, they have the technology but they also have something that most African journalists lack; a clear understanding of national interest.

Many will recall a telling headline in the Wall Street Journal titled “Jet Crush in Africa kills 157”. The headline reveals the Western writer’s dismissive perception of Africa; a single, homogenous country.

In his article, “The role of the African media in promoting African integration”, veteran Ghanaian journalist Baffour Ankomah says one lesson that is never taught in journalism school is that the existence of a “free press” as a mere mirage.

Ankomah writes: “On the wings of this deceit, we set forth to reproduce this ‘free press’ in Africa often with catastrophic results.”

Most journalists of my generation must be aware of John Pilger who in his 2006 paper “Reporting War and Empire”, told a bemused audience that he disagreed with the old cliché that “truth is the first casualty of war”. Journalism, he said, is in fact the first casualty. In Pilger’s view, journalism has itself become a weapon of war. In Zimbabwe, fake news has become a weapon.

Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, in his 2008 piece appropriately titled “Who will define Africa”, challenges African journalists to “take responsibility for how our continent is portrayed.”

Indeed, for far too long, a majority of Africans have been unconcerned to parodies about who they are. They have remained mere objects of the ignorant caricatures of a once glorious heritage defaced by colonial and post-colonial slayers. This is a narrative that needs to be challenged.

Now is the time for African journalists to Write Back to Empire and proclaim our equal humanity.

This article was first published by The Herald.