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Attempt to control media on Gukurahundi coverage



THE Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), a constitutional body charged with register[1]ing media organisations and accrediting journalists, and an unrepresentative “technical committee” of selected scribes have produced a controversial document to effectively control how reporters must cover the upcoming Gukurahundi investigations outreach programme.


The draft document, titled Gukurahundi Code of Conduct Pledge, and produced without consultation with relevant stakeholders, is designed to control how journalists should cover the Gukurahundi investigation, although it purports to be pledging to reaffirm ethical standards.

It invites all sorts of official players, including government, police and constitutional bodies, to sign it and interfere into newsroom operational matters, leaving journalists vul[1]nerable to editorial manipulation and gagging of coverage.

Apart from that, the ZMC and its committee of journalists produced another document titledThe Gukurahundi Outreach Reporting Guide.

This document says it seeks to “provide guidance to media practitioners” to ensure “responsible” reporting. It has various sections covering the introduction and background; conflict-sensitive reporting; personal and professional conduct in Gukurahundi public hearings; interviewing; dos and don’ts; livestreaming and sources.

After many years of denial, the government has finally yielded to pressure to allow a pub[1]lic enquiry into the Gukurahundi massacres which happened between 1982 and 1987 in several stages.

Gukurahundi, like any genocide, happened in stages, starting with the Matabeleland military lockdown in 1982, deployment of the North Korean-trained Five Brigade in early 1983 and its crackdown in Matabeleland North province, the scorched earth policy in Matabeleland South in 1984, the electoral blitz in 1985 and the mop-up exercise, as well as negotiations leading to the 1987 Unity Ac[1]cord between Zapu and Zanu.

The atrocities have been classified as genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars and Genocide Watch. Genocide happens in stages before and after the killings. It also takes time for perpetrators to accept reality. It never just happens.

There is always a set of circumstances which occur or which are created to build the climate in which genocide can take place. Gregory H Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, developed a framework outlining the 10 stages of genocide.

 At each of the earlier stages, there is an opportunity for members of the community or the international community to halt the stages and stop genocide before it happens. The stages include classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial.

After years of denials, first under the late president Robert Mugabe, who was the architect of the massacres, and later his successor President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the govern[1]ment in 2019 started to engage communities and stakeholders over the issue. Mugabe described the genocide as a “moment of madness”.

 There was a false start to the current process as some of the civil society groups and nonstate actors were later captured with money and patronage by state actors. Now traditional chiefs from Matabeleland (Phase I) and the Midlands (Phase II) provinces will soon embark on state-sponsored hearings to investigate the scope and intensity of the killings, but some of them want to bar the media and security services from the meetings.

Analysts say this will further compromise the transparency, credibility and integrity of the process, which already has foreclosed truth-telling, accountability and justice by ensuring that it has to be inherently restorative — not retributive — and without individual criminal responsibility. Besides, analysts say traditional chiefs do not have the rigorous intellectual and technical capacity to conduct an exercise of this complexity and magnitude.

 While it is understandable why security forces should be barred to ensure victims are free to recount their stories and tell the truth without fear of retribution, it is untenable to try to ban media from the process. Journalists have now been unnecessarily put in a tight corner to come up with new rules of coverage and special accreditation for it as the authorities and chiefs become increasingly sensitive to how media will tell the story.

Without wide consultations, the ZMC, which should not even be involved in news[1]room operational matters, is now spearheading the process with a few journalists grouped in a “technical committee”.

This follows “media sensitisation” meetings held in Bulawayo between journalists, the ZMC, chiefs and other stakeholders yesterday and weeks earlier. Not all journalists were invited to the meetings. So those journalists who were present engaged the ZMC and formed a committee to deal with how the media must cover Gukurahundi.

They produced documents on how to cover the process, again without consultation with most of the media houses and journalists, including representative bodies. The process has already proved to be vulnerable to errors, which could be fatal. A lot of pitfalls lie along the way.

 The ZMC and the committee, for instance, came up with a consent form for victims to first sign before their stories are covered, an unprecedented gatekeeping exercise in professional journalism. They are also engaged in a needless debate about whether Gukurahundi was a genocide or not, yet experts have already concluded it is. Journalists have no expertise to determine whether Gukurahundi was a genocide or not. Experts in the area have already spoken on that.

 Many journalists say there is no need for new rules and special access to cover Gukurahundi. A number of journalists have already been covering the killings for decades now. Media organisations and various stakeholders already have established codes of ethics, frameworks and guidelines, and professional reporting standards which guide their work.

Media stakeholders say what is only needed is conflict-sensitive reporting workshops and not a new labyrinth of rules of coverage for journalists that will ultimately and inevitably result in impediments to the free flow of news and information, defeating the objective of the process which must be transparent and informative.

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