By Nigel Nyamutumbu
WITH the world grappling with serious international conflicts that are degenerating into a humanitarian crisis, the media is increasingly becoming a battleground for political contestations.
Journalists as frontline workers are among the most vulnerable and are normally caught in the crossfire and in the worst cases paying the ultimate price with their own lives in pursuit of the truth. While the safety risks vary from one context to the other, the common thread is that acts of violence against journalists are illegal and must be avoided at all costs. Journalists are not a part of the story, but their role is to mirror society, including the good, bad and ugly
Most governments and those that wield power in its various forms are generally uncomfortable with reflections of a negative nature, thus drawing battlelines with journalists, who by their nature bring to the fore that which is critical of power. The response against journalists is often brutal with cases of arbitrary arrests, harassment, beatings and many other forms of violence are used to silence the dissenting voices.
It is through recognition that there is a challenge that ought to be addressed that the family of nations in honour of journalists that have lost their lives on duty that November 2 is annually set aside to rally media stakeholders to put in place mechanisms that will ensure journalists’ safety. It is a moment in which countries assess the safety situation in their backyards with various response mechanisms being proposed to ensure that the operating environment for the media is improved. Journalists’ safety is not devoid of the broader environment and the national questions that inform the same. For example, in countries where there is heightened political conflicts, they are likely to have a higher number of incidences of violations against the media.
Similarly, environments that have tight controls on citizens, including overly regulating their freedom of association, access to information and freedom of expression are highly likely perpetrators of crimes against journalists. Journalism can only thrive in an environment where broader civic and political rights are respected. Contexts that prefer control over information as opposed to regulation are unfriendly to free journalistic enterprise and there will always be running battles between those in power and the media in those regions.
Lawfare is normally used to curtail journalistic freedoms, with laws that either entrench statutory regulation or the criminalisation of journalistic work and use of ambiguous insult provisions are some of the methods used to threaten freedom of the press. State interference in the practice of journalism is unhealthy and a breeding ground for violence against journalism. If the state is overly vested in the operations of the media there is a high likelihood of propaganda and packaging information in a way that serves the interests of the ruling elite. Truth becomes the biggest causality. Instead of having public interest journalism there is commissariat journalism that further compromises the safety of journalists.
Society is further polarised and organised according to the viewpoints of their preferred leaders and dominating narratives. Journalists are thus perceived as either friends or enemies. Such lenses on journalists have proven to be the basis of violence against media workers merely on account of where and whom they are associated with. It gets worse during electoral seasons when the stakes for power are high and campaign modes in full swing.
Many times journalists are indiscriminately caught up in the violence either by political supporters, overzealous security personnel and state security agents. What follows are either statements committing to investigate these crimes or solidarity that often doesn’t translate into meaningful interventions or an attempt to bring the perpetrators to account. Words alone are inadequate in ensuring the safety of journalists. There is need to ensure policy consistency in terms of the legal framework itself and what obtains on the ground.
Governments have for example repealed draconian laws only to sneak them back by another name or by having clawback provisions. In other cases, there are constitutions that guarantee journalistic rights but without the supporting legislation to give e ect to those rights. The rights in such cases remain aspirational and more of a pie in the sky. Beyond the need for improved policy environment, there is need for mechanisms to safeguard the media from state interference editorially and even in terms of enforcing journalistic standards.
Media self-regulation and a genuine free journalistic enterprise in both public and privately owned media houses is key in ensuring that journalists are trusted by the public and can thus be safe. There should be mechanisms to protect female journalists from sexual harassment from sources and peers with media organisations implementing gender-sensitive policies that will compromise the safety of both male and female journalists. Such policies should include psycho-social support, more so for journalists covering wars or violent-prone areas. Professionalism is the first line of defence and if journalists are to be protected by the various publics they serve, the standards of what comes out of the media should be of high quality and reliable.
Citizens need to rebuild trust with the media and there should be mechanisms for partnerships and building synergies that guarantee the safety of journalists. There is also need for digital security and to ensure that journalistic communication is not interfered with. We are living in the digital age and journalistic rights such as the protection of sources and privacy of information should be upscaled. The future of journalism in this digital age is the extent at which news media enterprise is truthful and objective.
There is a market for credible news beyond ideological persuasions, manufacturing consent and commiserate journalism. But that can only happen if the environment permits free and independent journalism. Observing international day-to-end impunity for crimes against journalists should provide that wake-up call to address the challenges facing news media. No crime is too small or big. Perpetrators for crimes against journalists must be brought to book!
*Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently heading the secretariat of a network of media professional associations and support organizations, the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on +263 772 501 557 or email@example.com This article was first published in the Accent, a MAZ initiative