IT is Sunday morning and a group of multi-regional journalists are paying attention to Bart Smith, an experienced tour guide sharing the rich history of the United States capital.
BERNARD MPOFU recently in the United States
The tour begins in Lafayette Square, Washington DC, where Smith extolls the virtues of America’s heroes whose statues stand tall in the square. He proudly narrates the history behind the men who ushered in the country’s independence, detailing how multiple nationalities have shaped America’s democracy.
As the tour continues, journalists get elated when they see smaller groups of tourists taking pictures of an iconic building located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington DC. Immediately, new friendships form among the jetlagged journalists as many take turns to have “Kodak moments” at the White House.
Thanks to smartphones, Kodak moments have been replaced by devices which have better picture resolutions and can instantly share images, audio and other visuals at one click. For me, it was easy to relate to colleagues from Sadc on day 2: Kondwane Magombo of Malawi and Bongani Fuzile, the deputy editor of South Africa’s Daily Dispatch. Days later, this was to change as many embraced cultural diversity and shared professional work experiences.
As the scribes rush to get closer to the residence of the one of the world’s most powerful leaders, something else draws their attention. An elderly man — camped a few yards from the erected perimeter of tall metal fencing of the White House — waxes lyrical as he laments how nuclear power has made the world an unsafe place for humanity.
For 32 years, Connie Picciotto, a tiny 77-year-old activist, led a 24-hour vigil against nuclear proliferation from a makeshift camp in Lafayette Square until her demise in 2013.
Her successor is now carrying the torch, hoping that one day when the Bidens open their curtains, the message will be sent home.
He is part of the movement whose relentless quest for the non-proliferation of nuclear power began in 1981. Wait a second: yes, right in front of the White House façade, a man speaks truth to power.
A Secret Service police car is parked in the square and its occupants seem unfazed about what is going on around them, even though they are obviously working. Almost unimaginable back home! This immediately got me thinking about two things: the involvement of non- state actors in international affairs, particularly on issues relating to high politics and secondly domestic tourism. “Regime change agents” or “unpatriotic sellouts” would be the tags one gets from the authorities defending their hegemony in the face of criticism on issues of national interest.
Back home, many dread driving or taking a stroll along one of the shortest roads in the country: Chancellor Road, where the official residence of Zimbabwe’s leader Emmerson Mnangagwa is located. Some have lived to narrate sorry tales of how security agents have taken them to task after their vehicles broke down while others are now living in perpetual fear after witnessing soldiers frogmarching citizens as they jealously guarded Mnangagwa’s compound like a swarm of bees.
After a turbulent end to 2021 following a series of stories I wrote, my family and I were terrified following several overt and covert threats and I began the new year on a soul searching journey. I reflected on my life, work and everything in between after writing articles on the country’s military establishment which in my view were of national interest and ticked all the boxes of journalistic standards.
Close friends and family reminded me of the important lesson we learnt during journalism 101: no story is worth dying for.
Being part of the International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) on journalism gave me different perspectives of journalism work across the globe.
During the programme, which was named after a veteran American journalist, we traversed from the east coast to the west coast, interacting with journalists, fact-checking organisations, not-for-profit investigative journalism platforms, the academia and lawyers. All this was done in three weeks and the memories are forever cherished.
The IVLP Edward Murrow programme on investigative journalism and research not only established new professional networks but also broadened my knowledge of the occupational hazards faced by the 22 journalists who underwent this programme.
On the flip side, I got an appreciation of how established newspapers like the multiple Pulitzer award-winning Washington Post runs its investigative journalism unit.
Craig Whitlock, an investigative reporter on the Post, shared how the newspaper broke a story of how retired senior US military officials are flocking overseas to work as contractors or consultants. The piece, which was published this year, exposed how hundreds of US military veterans, including retired generals and admirals, have received permission from the US to work for foreign governments, including countries with questionable human rights records.
The story was a slap in the face for US authorities who have often been criticised by some authoritarian regimes for preaching what they do not practice. In politics, this would be in the realm of realism. For most of peers at home, this is rushing in where angels fear to tread.
Misinformation and disinformation are subjects which were also discussed at length at a time the credibility of bona fide news organisations is under threat. Apart from getting back to the basics, we learnt about how reputable organisations such as the Florida-based Poynter Institute has made fact checking in the era of fake news and infordemics a priority.
My visit to the Poynter Institute and the Howard Centre for Investigative Journalism, Phillip Merrill College of Journalism of the University of Maryland which is offering a master’s degree in data journalism and investigative journalism was quite an experience.
A common thread which I picked out during my interactions with some of the American media professionals was the emphasis on the Freedom of Information Act and the First Amendment of the Constitution which has made journalism easier to practice compared to most countries of the global south.
While Zimbabwe guarantees freedom of expression and media as well as protection, practising the craft has never been a walk in the park. Journalists have been assaulted, arrested, harassed in their line of duty and media watchdogs have warned that the situation may deteriorate in the coming year.
Cautiously, I do not hold a Utopian view of the US, but I will give credit where it is due. The emergence of Chicago-based non-partisan, non-profit journalism organisation Injustice Watch cast light on some of the challenges of America’s modern-day democracy.
The organisation conducts in-depth research exposing institutional failures that obstruct justice and inequality in a city. George Floyd’s death, which triggered the #BlacksLiveMatter hashtag across the globe, laid bare the deep-seated racial issues in the US.
The rise in data journalism is a new emerging trend among most newsrooms. For Injustice Watch and other like-minded organisations such as ProRepublica, data journalism has been key in their investigative reporting.
But unlike Zimbabwe where information is open sourced, US journalists can access public documents at ease. In Zimbabwe, leaked documents have been vital in most investigative reports due to the cloud of secrecy around most public institutions.
An eight-hour flight from St Petersburg Florida to San Diego Washington led to an important meeting with retired prosecutor George Hardy, who credits investigative journalists for helping him through their coverage in nailing down former congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
In 2006, the San Diego Union Tribune and Copley News Service (with notable work by Marcus Stern and Jerry Kammer) were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for their articles on the bribe-taking Cunningham who was convicted and sentenced to prison.
Cunningham was issued a partial hasty pardon last year by former US President Donald Trump before he left office. One thing which is clear is that journalism in its various shapes and forms is a public good and I hope that one day my countrymen will see it as such.
The programme wound down in Chicago where we had interactions with not-for-profit news organisations and television reporters.
On cultural activities, walking down the Magnificent Mile, home to international clothing brands and top restaurants, was awesome. But the major highlight was watching a basketball match between the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks.
The home side lost. Being part of the tens of thousands who were seated in the giant United Centre was just breath-taking. Yes, I saw where the legendary Michael Jordan played. I also tasted different cuisine from San Diego’s Little Italy, among others.
My newfound Spanish-speaking colleagues would end by saying Feliz navidad (Merry Christmas) folks.
The festive season mood and ambience there are palpable and Christmas is big business. Switching on my phone upon touching down at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, I was welcomed by messages of rolling power outages, water shortages and the toxic politics. I came, I saw, I conquered. Back to the 41 year old vigil . . .