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Dangerous code of conduct to gag media on massacres



The Zimbabwe Media Commission and its unrepresentative journalists’ committee have created a controversial code of conduct for reporting on the chiefs’ forthcoming Gukurahundi outreach programme amid criticism of the proposed repressive restrictions and censorship, sparking fierce debate, clashes and resistance, The NewsHawks reports . . .


THE Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) and a few journalists working with it held a meeting in Harare on Monday in a bid to come up with a code of conduct for reporters covering the upcoming traditional chiefs Gukurahundi outreach programme into the 1980s massacres of innocent civilians in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces by the army, amid restrictive proposals that will gag free coverage of the critical process.

The event, dubbed “Gukurahundi media sensitisation breakfast meeting”, was held at Rainbow Towers Hotel in the capital. At least two meetings have already been held in Bulawayo before the Monday one.

Ahead of the meeting, the ZMC and its “technical committee” of selected journalists — which is not representative of the media fraternity — has circulated documents with proposals on how reporters should cover the Gukurahundi investigation by chiefs in Matabeleland first and later in the Midlands.

The National Council of Chiefs deputy president Chief Fortune Charumbira has said journalists and security services should be barred from the hearings. The traditional leaders’ body is led by Chief Mtshane Khumalo.

Journalists say Charumbira’s attempt to ban reporters is unconstitutional as it violates the constitutionally entrenched freedoms of media and expression. While it is understandable why security forces — who perpetrated the genocide in the first place — should be barred from the hearings, there is no justification to ban journalists.

Other media stakeholders are saying the ZMC and its committee should be demanding full and unfettered access to the hearings and coverage to ensure people get unfiltered news and information instead of kowtowing to chiefs and government officials.

Analysts say, after all, chiefs lack the intellectual and technical capacity to deal with this complex, multiplex and interdisciplinary issue.

The other key problem is the process itself which forecloses some critical issues, particularly transparency, accountability and justice, as well as individual criminal responsibility due to its attempt to whitewash the role of individuals and prescribe an exculpatory outcome which is the preferred endgame by the authorities.

The ZMC and its committee’s proposals have subtle, divisive and dangerous detail that would not only restrict media coverage, but also impose punitive sanctions against reporters doing their job in an independent and professional way.

The proposals also invite the government, the police and constitutional bodies into the fray of operational news issues — literally inviting authorities into the newsrooms.

The “technical committee”, constituted without broad consultations with various stakeholders and crudely unrepresentative, includes journalists Victoria Ruzvidzo (Sunday Mail), Nduduzo Tshuma (The Chronicle), Zenzele Ndebele (CITE), Annahstacia Ndlovu (Voice of America), Albert Chekai (ZBC), Cris Chinaka (ZimFact) and Monica Cheru (ZimNow). The committee and ZMC met in Bulawayo on Monday. ZMC, which primarily registers media organisations and accredits journalists, was represented by its executive secretary Godwin Phiri (pictured) and two commissioners, Aleck Ncube and Tanaka Muganyi.

Some of the areas in which the ZMC and its committee seek to restrict journalists is on perpetrators, language and interviews, as well as methods of coverage, including livestreaming.

The proposals, for instance, seek to ban journalists from using a term like “genocide”, falsely claiming that it is not well-defined.

“In transitional justice and peace-building periods, it is important for the media to avoid using words that have no clear definition and are likely to incite high emotions. Words like genocide and massacre should be avoided because they have no clear agreed definitions,” a ZMC/journalists committee document, titled The Gukurahundi Outreach Reporting Guide, says.

This is viewed as a crude attempt to censor the media.

Contrary to what the code’s authors claim, genocide has been well-researched and defined by reputable scholars and organisations like the International Association of Genocide Scholars and Genocide Watch (Alliance Against Genocide). Journalists have no intellectual and technical capacity to dispute established definitions of genocide by specialised scholars and researchers. Besides, there is a United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

(Genocide Convention), an instrument of international law that codified for the first time the crime of genocide.

The Genocide Convention was the first human rights treaty adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1948 and signified the international community’s commitment to “never again” after the atrocities committed during the Second World War. Its adoption marked a crucial step towards the development of international human rights and international criminal law as we know it today.

According to the Genocide Convention, genocide is a crime that can take place both in time of war as well as peace.

The definition contained in Article II of the convention describes genocide as a “crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part”. It does not include political groups or so called “cultural genocide”.

The definition of the crime of genocide, as set out in the convention, has been widely adopted at both national and international levels, including in the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Only recently, South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice over its Gaza siege atrocities against Palestinians.

Importantly, the convention imposes on state parties the obligation to take measures to prevent and punish the crime of genocide, including by enacting relevant legislation and punishing perpetrators, “whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals” (Article IV).

That obligations, in addition to the prohibition not to commit genocide, have been considered as norms of international customary law and therefore, binding on all states, whether or not they have ratified the Genocide Convention.

Besides genocide, the ZMC proposals also want to ban journalists from using words like “massacre”, claiming their meanings not clear.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, massacre means “to kill many people in a short period of time”.

The Oxford Dictionary says massacre means “killing of a large number of people, especially in a cruel way” — for instance “a bloody massacre of innocent civilians”. So the meanings of genocide and massacre are very clear and that is precisely what happened during the Gukurahundi genocide.

There are many reports, records and books on that, showing beyond reasonable doubt Gukurahundi was a massacre constituting genocide. The other controversial element of the Gukurahundi Code of Conduct is demanding that journalists should “focus on issues not just on personalities”.

This is seen as an attempt to protect perpetrators who are well-known. In any case, it is not the ZMC and its committee’s job to tell reporters what they should do and how they should do their job.

The ZMC’s arbitrary involvement in this process is problematic as this is an operational matter which should be addressed by media houses and journalists. The proposals also further prescribe: “Fact versus Truth: Media practitioners should be clear on what constitutes truth and what constitutes fact. Statistics should only be used when they have a verifiable pedigree and not be taken as facts just because someone said so”.

This is seen as calculated and designed to downplay and suppress Gukurahundi statistics like the 20 000 figure of people who were killed that emanated from human rights groups and other sources.

The proposals add: “Disinformation through editing: The media should avoid creating potentially volatile situations by taking utterances or events out of context to create the impression of intent to offend or harm.

 This can be done through clipped audios or images as well as incomplete quotes in writing. When capturing such reports, the full context should be included for a true and factual account.”

This is clearly meant to prevent journalists from quoting toxic and genocidal statements by Zanu PF leaders, including President Emmerson Mnangagwa, during the Gukurahundi era.

Those statements are there as evidence of what happened throughout the 10 stages of the genocide spanning: classification, symbolisation, discrimination, dehumanisation, organisation, polarisation, preparation, persecution, extermination and denial. Gregory H Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, developed 10 the stages of genocide. At each of the earlier stages, there is an opportunity for members of the directly affected community or the international community to halt the stages and stop genocide before it happens.

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 the 1987 Unity Accord between Zapu and Zanu.

The ZMC proposals add: “Media Practitioners who intend to livestream proceedings must get written consent from the National Chiefs Council representatives.”

This is another gatekeeping measure. “Sources of stated facts: Where media states facts, it should cite sources. If unsure of the veracity of facts, avoid publishing,” one of the ZMC documents says in a further attempt to censor reporters.

In an attempt to intimidate, criminalise and scare away journalists, the document adds: “Potential legal, economic and social repercussions of negligence: Media practitioners who break the Code of Conduct they would have signed on at accreditation face threefold censure: Media practitioners should understand that the law of the land in inviolate and no practitioner can hide behind the right to report when breaking the law.

Some laws may entail civil prosecution which will cost the media practitioner in legal fees as well as time spent away from work; Peer accountability means that after determining that an infringement has been committed, the peer review mechanism should fit reaction to action as per agreed parameters through measures like compelling retraction and or apology or withdrawing accreditation; Professional standing can be irredeemably compromised when one is called out as an unethical practitioner.”

Then there is the strange issue of demanding that journalists should first secure and sign consent forms with victims before they report on their accounts during the hearings.

This bureaucratisation of news is another form of censorship. Obligingly, the ZMC and its journalists then promise the authorities and chiefs to: “Challenge and correct statements and claims that have no basis in fact. Avoid highlighting or amplifying falsehoods, hate speech, and incitement to violence”. Some of the journalists involved have reacted in an agitated and furious way to The NewsHawks bringing to light these restrictive, intimidatory and dangerous proposals from the ZMC and its committee.

For instance, Monica Cheru-Mpambawashe, managing editor of ZimNow and a former Herald reporter, rushed to the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe in a baseless and futile attempt to silence The NewsHawks, which has rejected her grandstanding move to play to the gallery while avoiding serious issues raised.

“In the publication cited above which had almost 5 000 views on Twitter at time of complaint, and had been shared on innumerable WhatsApp groups, NewsHawks put my name in an article full of falsehoods and thereby smeared my professional standing,” Cheru-Mpambawashe claims.

NewsHawks reported on a meeting to which they sent no representative and reported inaccurately on proceedings of that meeting and an earlier one. The article states that the committee was selected in a dodgy and opaque way, yet minutes of the meeting will show that selection was by nomination and secondment in an open forum. There were objections raised and taken into account and general consensus was reached by those present.

“In addition the NewsHawks article states that the committee is attempting to muzzle the media through a specific code of conduct for Gukurahundi hearings. “Again minutes of the meetings will reveal that I was one of the most steadfast voices in advocating and insisting on the freedom of access for media practitioners. Therefore by painting me as an advocate for repression of media freedom, NewsHawks deliberately created fake news to taint my professional standing.”

While the ZMC and its committee are trying to come up with a restrictive and dangerous framework and conditions for reporting the Gukurahundi hearings, they conveniently ignore that some journalists have been reporting on the atrocities for decades now without the need for these repressive conditions that only strengthen the hand of media tyrants instead of broadening and deepening media freedom to cover real issues.

For instance, there were recent Gukurahundi hearings by the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission.

And besides, there have been many other initiatives on Gukurahundi which were not subject to these repressive and dangerous proposals by a few individuals posturing as representatives of the whole media fraternity and stakeholders.

That is why most representative media bodies and stakeholders have rejected this process as toxic and dangerous.

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