“Media Freedom Helps Fight Poverty”

John Churu

Its official, the words “Fake News” have now been included and immortalized in the formal communication by the Collins Dictionary. The two words have been mostly used by the current US President Donald Trump with reckless abandon in almost all of his numerous tweets. The president has been labelling news fake at every turn. Anything that did not appeal to him or anything that he felt was not palatable or succulent enough for his administration or his person and especially coming from News houses like the CNN and the BBC et al was FAKE NEWS. These twin inseparable words have been hijacked by other entities the world over especially in reference to news that emanate from some social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Google and/or the internet but being divorced from the conventional media outlets. This fake news craze or alternative news has become so incessant that there is a danger that it will be very hard going forward to extricate the real from the false. However, like fake hair, it doesn’t last long.
As concerned people all over the globe commemorate the month of November and the 2nd day of November in particular, as the day to remember the work that journalists carry throughout the world, the formalization and subsequent acceptance of the words fake news sends some chilling effects to the men and women who ply their trade as media personnel. It is always very easy for people not privy to the day to day business of journalism to accept that ‘journalists are liars,’ as is the perception all over. Even the educated among us find it hard to comprehend that it is very hard to write lies as  practicing journalists than it is for one to turn water into wine. Journalism is also made of good and bad, just like the police service or the priesthood. According to Linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, “I don’t accept the post modern idea that then truth doesn’t exist.”
Still on matters journalistic, the week saw the Maltese writer and investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Garuzia being laid to rest after meeting her demise during a tour of duty. The 53 year old woman was one of the tiny island’s boldest reporters whose blog and writing in the mainstream papers ruffled a lot of heavyweights in her country. Although a bounty of 1 million Euros was at stake for the killers, her immediate family members could not accept the government’s intervention, saying instead the country’s leader should resign over the matter. Interestingly, the kind of news that gets silenced is the kind of news that the people want to hear. The numbers across the world today speak to the gross impunity on journalists on a daily basis.
In the same week, there were sad developments as well on the other side of the Botswana fence to the north were it is alleged an American journalist was picked up and locked up by the police there for blogging that the president of that country was “a sick and selfish man and a goblin.” If convicted of the crime, the unfortunate American journalist will be imprisoned for up to twenty years in jail. This sentence is longer than some robbers, murderers and corrupt officials could be incarcerated for.  On top of this charge, she has also been accused of undermining or insulting the government and attempting to overthrow the government through unconstitutional means.
As the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) is heading for its more than 30 years of existence, it would be remiss of me if I would not remind the reader about the road that this noble organisation has so far travelled and what some of its building blocks entailed. During a May 31, 1991 Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press; the men and women present on that day made a number of declarations. Here, clause 3 of that declaration, says; “By a pluralistic press we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinions within the community.” Still today, many of the said African countries fail to see sense in the declaration, preferring rather to muzzle and prosecute those that their governments should protect.
Clause 6 of the same says clearly and rather prophetically, that “In Africa today, despite the positive developments in some countries, in many countries journalists, editors and publishers are victim of repression – they are murdered, arrested, detained and censored, and are restricted by economic and political pressures such as the restrictions on newsprint, licensing systems which restrict the opportunity to publish, visa restrictions which prevent the free movement of journalists, restrictions on the exchange of news and information and limitations on the circulation of newspapers within countries and across national borders. In some countries, one party states control the totality of information.” There are places where some newspapers are banned as long as they do not report favourably about the top table. Many newspaper vendors and their newsstands have also been targeted and some even maimed or killed for the name of press freedom.
As a follow-up, clause 9 in the same Windhoek Declaration says “African governments should be encouraged to provide constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and freedom of association,”  of which our American counterpart in Zimbabwe is said to have been denied. I do not know whether the newly formulated Botswana Media and Allied Workers Union (BOMAWU) is doing much on that respect (I will need time to parley with the BOMAWU leadership on this one,) but the 13th clause of the declaration says here that “The national media and labour relations laws of African countries should be drafted in such a way as to ensure that such representatives associations can exist and fulfill their important tasks in defence of freedom of press freedom.”
It goes on to say and particularly in relation to the recent arrest of an American reporter in Zimbabwe, that, “As a sign of good faith, African governments that have jailed journalists for their professional activities should free them immediately. Journalists who have had to leave their countries should be free to resume their professional activities.”
Speaking on the month of November, a UN representative Jaco Du Toit said “attacks on journalists the world over are on the rise.” This is a very scary scenario and there seems to be no sign of receding any time soon. On the same panel was Kenyan Media Council CEO, David Omwoyo who said that there was need, above all else, to also address cultural stereotypes in the industry. While Dr. Dorothy Njoroge still from the Kenyan Association for Media Women who articulated that “The attack on journalists is an attack on democracy.”
The issues the media practitioners are facing today up to this November 2017 are the same issues that the founders of MISA have for a very long time been grappling with and some have sadly passed on with the same issues unresolved. Mandla Seleoane, who was the then Chairperson of the MISA Trust Funds Board as well as Research Specialist wrote thus: “So is it with media freedom in the region. We see at once what appears to be a deepening of democracy and a denial of it. Just about all the constitutions in the region guarantee media freedom. Yet the fact that political authorities observe media freedom more in breach is clear for anyone who will see. Although this contradiction appears strange at first glance, in fact it s not strange. By its nature power needs to be tamed, otherwise it will get out of control easily. I have come across many people who have made huge sacrifices in the struggle for democracy but as soon as they have the power over others, they too become authoritarian…”
Away from the negativity that the guilty always accuse the media of doing, a former President of the World Bank Group James Wolfensohn once declared that “Media Freedom Helps Fight Poverty.” He wrote; “What is the connection, then, between press freedom and economic poverty. A large part lies with corruption and the fight against it. Studies by the World Bank for instance, show that the higher the level of press freedom in countries, the greater the control over corruption and the greater focus on scarce resources on priority development issues. A free press not only saves as an outlet for expression, but it also provides a source of accountability, a vehicle for civic participation and a check on official corruption.” According to Amy Goodman, “the tenets of good journalism remain the same: allow people to describe their own experiences.”
So, for countries that are quick to arrest journalists on very flimsy charges it is always advisable to refer to James Wolfensohn’s sagely advice and learn how quick the fortunes of a dwindling economy can come alive, just by freeing, and not fleecing the media space.
Lastly, it’s hard to believe that these words were once uttered by one Jonathan Moyo of Zimbabwe when he was Minister of Information and Publicity circa 2002: “Journalism is such a sensitive profession that it cannot be left to journalists alone:” to which one Rashweat Mukundu, the then Information officer at MISA’s made this rejoinder: “But journalism is such a sensitive profession that it cannot be left to anybody but journalists.” Journalism is more of a mission than a profession. Welcome to the Fourth Estate, ladies and gentlemen!
John Churu is a Journalist and Social Commentator