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Propaganda over professionalism?

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Around 9pm on Monday 23 July, Zimbabwean journalist Abel Mutsakani was shot outside his Johannesburg home by unknown assailants, and was taken to hospital to recover. He was released several days later, but will have to live with the bullet lodged near his heart – the doctors advised it was too dangerous to remove it.

At the time, it was unclear if Mutsakani’s attack was one more unfortunate incident in South Africa’s struggle with violent crime, of if something more sinister was at play. Bev Clark shared some of City Press news editor and Zimbabwean journalist Japhet Ncube’s comments on professionalism and journalistic ethics in Zimbabwean journalism needs to look at itself. Commenting on Mutsakani’s murder, Ncube noted that most news agencies had chosen a conservative (in his view, professional) angle to the story, stating simply that the motivation for the attack, and the identity of the shooters, remained unclear. He criticised the Cross Border Association of Journalists for jumping to conclusions and labelling the attack a pre-meditated “hit” orchestrated by the Mugabe regime.

I agree with Ncube entirely. Supporting the accurate story – the well-researched and documented story – may not yield as sensational copy, but it does lend longer term respect and credibility to the publication and to the country. We don’t do ourselves any favours when we exaggerate the facts or make baseless accusations.

That old chestnut about the boy who cried wolf stays in circulation for a reason: it’s still relevant. A news agency’s credibility depends upon it finding the truth behind the rumour, analysing it, and reporting it accurately. Civil society organisations whose work includes information development and dissemination need to take on similar standards. This doesn’t mean they have to craft themselves into cold, dispassionate observers. But it does mean they need to respect the difference between being blinded by passion, and telling passionate, fact-based accounts.

So I was interested to read the CAJ response, which falls into the dichotomised “you’re either with us or against us” kind of thinking which paralyses analysis of the Zimbabwe situation. The CAJ essentially argues that Mutsakani was murdered by the government of Zimbabwe on the basis of this syllogism:

1) The government of Zimbabwe has brutalised, tortured and even murdered activists within the country for their political beliefs or activities,
2) The government of Zimbabwe has been vocal and active in its resentment of independent journalists and independent news agencies,
3) Mutsakani used to work for the Daily News, which was known as an opposition voice. When the state closed that, he moved to South Africa and started Zimonline, which regularly publishes reports which expose human rights abuses by the regime
4) The CIO is known to have agents operating in South Africa,
5) Therefore, the regime organised to have Mutsakani killed, and
6) If you disagree with this you are anti the cause of a democratic Zimbabwe and you don’t support press freedom.

CAJ’s second comment states that even more clearly – yes it might well have been “just another” criminal attack in South Africa. But because it’s unclear, and because CAJ supports media freedom in Zimbabwe and the return of Zimbabwean journalists to Zimbabwe, they have decided to blame the attack on the state – more for the propaganda spin than for any commitment to accuracy in reporting, it would seem.

Like Ncube said, it’s hard to speak about all of this without seeming callous or insensitive. And when CAJ, or someone else, comes forward with a bit more evidence, I am sure Ncube, myself, and others will dully revise our positions. In the meantime, what Ncube said in response is spot on: “That a top editor has been shot is a news story in itself, regardless of why he was shot.”

There are lessons here for all of us who work with media and information – where is the line between professionalism and spin, and how do we make sure we don’t start believing our own propaganda?

To view the full text of their exchange:


Mr Japhet Ncube,

Thank you for your response and is noted.

We are sorry that CAJ is not interested in personal attacks and trivial issues but we would to set the record straight.

Firstly, Savious Kwinika you are attacking is not related to Cross Border Association of Journalists and never authored the press statement. You are attacking the wrong person and I think you need to apologise to Mr Kwinika.

Secondly, the fact that Abel Mutsakani had to come to South Africa to establish a website with more than ten reporters in Zimbabwe because of media repression in Zimbabwe any mishap on him is laid on the government. If Daily News was not closed by the government Mutsakani would be in Zimbabwe practicising his career. The government of Zimbabwe has made it clear that journalists operating news online from outside the country are the enemy of the state.

It is wrong and uncalled for to suggest who should be murdered and who should be attacked. Many activists in Zimbabwe have been murdered in Zimbabwe but the leaders are still walking free. Some are even ordinary villagers in the rural areas; unless you would like to explain to us how the government target people.

The government of Zimbabwe does not hide their hatred for independent journalists. We cannot hide from the fact that Zimonline is the enemy of the government and on many reports which I have read about rights abuse in Zimbabwe, they use Zimonline as their source.

We can not hide away from the fact there are Zimbabwe CIO in South Africa and they are trailing on Zimbabwe journalists especially those writing about Zimbabwe deteriorating issues. As CAJ we will speak out and we will not wait for police investigation. We will continue to name and shame the enemies of journalists and sympathisers.

You are welcome to criticise our press statement and our work.

What we are fighting for is media freedom in Zimbabwe and for journalists to operate professional and freely in the country.We want to go back to New Zimbabwe and continue with our careers. It is not by choice we are here,it is the work of the Zimbabwe government.

Cross Border Association of Journalists

Okay. My sincere apologies to Kwinika for the link with cross border association of journalists. I will personally convey my apologies to Kwinika.

As a sign of respect for Abel, and because a good man lies in hospital fighting for his life, it will be insensitive for us to start a chartroom and discuss the merits or demerits of your statement, which confirms the attack as politically linked, without giving us any facts. Knowing Abel as a very professional gentleman, I doubt that he would agree with your approach.

After this, I think let’s talk directly to concerned parties and avoid making personal attacks. I will not be responding to anyone. I have stated my points very clearly.

Don’t you find it interesting that no other journalism organization has issued a statement saying this is a political attack and condemning the Zimbabwean government? They are waiting for facts. I am sure Misa, Sanef, ZUJ and so on will issue statements in solidarity with Abel once we know the facts around the attack. Even zimonline themselves have not said this is a political attack. Because they are a responsible entity.

That a top editor has been shot is a news story in itself, regardless of why he was shot. We don’t have to find a Zanu pf link for it to be a story, unless there is a link for real.

It’s possible this may be a political attack, and it is also possible that this was a criminal act. I say let’s not jump to say this was a political attack until we are absolutely sure of it. That’s the gist of my argument.

The danger in engaging in this kind of discussion when we have never met is that people then take it personally. I don’t even know who the members of your organization are and would be grateful to get that information.

I have already received hate mail from people who do not want to hear different views on Zimbabwe. One even accused me of having links with the CIO and threatened to go public about the alleged links. Of course they are hallucinating and don’t deserve any attention.

But why are we fighting amongst ourselves when a colleague and friend is battling for his life in hospital? Why can’t we accept difference in opinion?

Is that the Zimbabwe we want?

Japhet Ncube

Thank you for your response Tshisa.

It can be criminal shooting and I think you have good reason to believe so. But as CAJ which is fighting for media freedom in our beloved Zimbabwe, we are saying it is assasination attempt. The Zanu PF government have been threatening on the lives of independent journalists, some have been arrested, tortured and murdered under mysterious conditions. Any mishap to a journalist under unclear circumstance we will lay blame on Mugabe especially in foreign land.We will continue to name and shame because we are in this situation because of Mugabe.

Yes, we can talk about professionalism, truth and fair balanced reporting but if our government is failing to create conducive environment and are fighting independent journalists where can we practise our professionalism. We had to fight for press freedom in our country. As journalists we canot stand by watching while the government is making our lives hell.

You cannot talk of professionalism when journalists and media outlets are arrested, abducted, tortured, threatened, murdered and intimidated. We have to fight for conducive media environment in we can talk of professionalism.

On the issue, who should be shot, attacked and killed I think it uncalled for. Mugabe can target any person and is unpredictable. He can cause division among yourselves, now we are putting a list who should be targeted before Abel. Mugabe knows that if his men target journalists in Joburg, it will look like robbery attempt and has capacity to do it. The evidence will be concealed and there are hundreds of cases in Joburg which are still unresolved for years and the motive unknown.

What we are saying is that: Mugabe you are the one who forced us out of the country to this crime haven city, you are responsible of what happened to us. We want to go back to our country and contnue to write professional.Now we are fighting the regime, there is no more professionalism and rules of the game.

Mugabe has managed to sow seeds of division among people and this can create a perception that there are some who are supporting or defending the CIO and others who are promoting and supporting the opposition Movement for Democractic Chance. Lets accept our different view points and tolerate.

We would like to warn you especially to Zimbabwean journalists writing about issues on Zimbabwe that this may happen to you and might claim your life.Be careful and stay alert.

Do not fool yourselves and think that some journalists have to be attacked before they come to you!!

Cross Border Association of Journalists

2 comments to “Propaganda over professionalism?”

  1. Comment by mugandani Wagango:

    Don’t link everything to politics my dear friends. I warn u ,u playing in dangerous waters.

  2. Comment by Bev Clark:

    Mugandani . . .

    People will say with pride: I’m not interested in politics. They might just as well say, I’m not interested in my standard of living, my health, my job, my rights, my freedoms, my future or any future.
    ~ Martha Gellhorn, quoted in The Independent