Lessons from Ukraine


HARARE – Zimbabwe has a long way to go in many spheres of life to catch up with other countries within the region and globally.

It does not matter which sphere of our life one looks at, economically, socially and politically — we rank at the bottom of whatever comparative measure one can use. It is very depressing.

This staggering reality was driven home by events I witnessed in Ukraine last week, regarding media tolerance.

Ukraine is a relatively small country in Eastern Europe which became independent in 1991 when the Soviet Union broke up. It is a unitary state comprising 24 provinces and two big cities — Kiev the capital, and Sevastopol.

I spent the whole of last week in Kiev attending the annual World Editors Forum (Wef) and the concurrently held World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan-Ifra) congress — where editors from top newspapers and news organisations around the globe gathered to exchange ideas and explore new editorial concepts.

Sadly, there did not appear to be any other practising journalists from Zimbabwe there. I guess because these are difficult times economically within most of our mainstream industry.

Wan-Ifra, is based in Paris and Germany, but has subsidiaries in Singapore, India, Spain and Sweden.
It is the global organisation of the world’s newspapers and news publishers — representing more than 18 000 publications, 15 000 online publishers and more than 3 000 companies in more than 120 countries.

Its core mission is to defend and promote press freedom, quality journalism, editorial integrity and the development of prosperous businesses.

As usual, this year’s get-together was a special congress where top editors and publishers shared views on new media, press freedom and media development, with the main theme being defending and promoting an independent press worldwide.

The congress was thus most relevant for those of us who practise our craft in countries such as Zimbabwe and others, where independent “newspapering” is a hazardous endeavour.

Indeed, I firmly believe that there can be no democracy without press tolerance and freedom.

This is where the host country and its president Viktor Yanukovych absolutely showed us up for the Mickey Mouse democracy that ours is. While Yanukovych was officially opening the congress, dozens of local journalists raised placards demanding more freedom for the media and protection from government.

Most surprisingly for delegates such as me, these unhappy news hounds were not chased away, and neither were they brutalised nor arrested by the police.

I cannot imagine journalists in Zimbabwe being similarly given the space to protest against President Robert Mugabe, right in his face like that.

In fact, I know from our experience here that these “unpatriotic” journalists would have, without doubt, been detained and charged with undermining the authority of the president, had they pulled up half the “stunt” that they got away with in Kiev.

But Yanukovych calmly allowed the protestors to raise their placards and continued with his opening speech in which he agreed that indeed there could be no democracy without press freedom.

I was most envious.  

If only our leaders could allow journalists to express themselves freely surely our country would be miles ahead in the quest towards both press freedom and socio-economic development.

Another important lesson which also came out of Kiev was the need to keep the global spotlight on freedom of expression and attendant violations.

To that extent, Wan-Ifra has built a comprehensive advocacy strategy to address and lift restrictions to press freedom and advance freedom of expression as a fundamental condition for democracy and pluralism.
Within the industry, there was also an important lesson by way of fostering strategic alliances and executive twinning, in which newspapers engage in knowledge transfer and exchange.

This cooperation is aimed at assisting media houses to develop their economic and financial sustainability.  

Together with our group chief operating officer, Sharon Samushonga, we indeed took advantage of our presence at the congress to initiate alliances and twinning arrangements.

And you, our dear readers, will soon see the positive fruits of this exercise.

Watch this space.

What also struck me at the congress was the level of vibrant debate among the participants, especially on the cause for and against new media.

Most delegates were of the view that the internet was fast making hard copy newspapers irrelevant, but journalists from developing countries disagreed saying most of the countries in the world they inhabit are still decades away from catching up with Information Communication Technology.

After raising my hopes about a truly free and democratic media in Zimbabwe one day while in Ukraine, I returned home to come face to face with the harsh reality of journalism at home.

It is depressing.

Firstly, Webster Shamu, the minister of Media, Information and Publicity threatened to close down newspapers that criticise Mugabe, and secondly the Zimbabwe Media Council, whose true mission is to silence the private media, has now been activated.  

What a disaster for local media and the nation at large!

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