HARARE – The interplay between media and democracy is critical in trying to create and foster political openness and accountable governance especially in transitional societies struggling with entrenched authoritarianism such as Zimbabwe.
At this political juncture in the democratic process, Zimbabwe doesn’t need a loving and lovable media at all.
The country desperately requires an unlovable media.
Media scholars such as Michael Schudson point out critical issues that the media can do to serve democracy by postulating that news should provide full and fair information so that citizens can make informed political choices; the media can also investigate concentrated powers of the elected representatives; it can also interpret events with a view to assist citizens to understand complex issues in their societies; journalists can also tell people about the lives of the less privileged in communities so as to create empathy, create a forum for citizens dialogue from diverse perspectives as well as acting as advocates for specific political programmes and mobilise citizens to act in support of those activities.
However, it is cautioned that while the media can service democracy, they can also become democracy’s greatest threat when the mass media operates as a substitute for grass root democratic discussion.
When this happens, the media tends to allow monolistic or oligarchial control over the public agenda as well as persuasion and manipulation of opposing voices.
Such tendencies are against the functionalist and positive role of the media in nurturing democratic values and practices.
Despite the criticism and imperfection, the media and democracy has become so intertwined to the extent that some scholars have described them as the “eyes of democracy”.
Relative to the administration of credible elections, Esipisulu and Khaguli posit that: “A free, lively and responsible media is a pre-requisite for a functioning democracy, as much as at election times as in between.
“Good elections and good media are not things apart: they are intertwined.”
In Media and Elections: An Elections Reporting Handbook, Ross Howard argues that the media is the most important way people find out about an election and political choices.
To do this, the media needs to be free to report fairly on campaigns of all political parties, so that the electorate can determine if there are any differences between political players and their parties.
This is a critical challenge of the media in Zimbabwe as the country prepares for the next election.
This argument is premised on the long held understanding that for elections to be credible and democratic, the media needs to provide all people with the same information on how to vote, needs to have the freedom to ask critical questions and get answers about the transparency of the election and needs to tell voters if there are anomalies in the electoral process so that they could be fixed, argued Howard.
Trappel, Nieminen and Nord argue that the democratic role of journalism and the media identify and make public the failings of elected representatives.
“In this version of democracy, the responsibilities of the press are minimal but crucial.
“Elections are more likely to deter corruption and reward effective elite response to popular needs if the press effectively exposes transgressions and incompetence that could contribute to the electoral defeat of those currently governing.”
This argument about the access to information by citizens in electoral processes is crystallised by international human rights instruments such as the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the European Commission on Human Rights’ Article 10 and the American Convention on Human Rights Article 13.
All these international and human rights treaties’ emphasis on the right to access information, freedom of opinion and expression give credence to the argument that the media and democracy are inseparable and that the media is critical especially in States that are in the process of democratisation such as Zimbabwe.
In modern times especially after the Second World War, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which all nations including African countries that are members of the United Nations are signatories, it has been argued is the base upon which the media builds its role to enlighten and sustain democracy.
The article which is also captured in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression which includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek and receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontier.
The media are critical for defending human rights, which are an important ingredient of a democratic society.
They expose human rights violations, allow citizens to know about rights abuses.
In the Zimbabwe context as the country grapples with election preparations, knowledge and awareness of human rights are vital because through such awareness, citizens possess fundamental human rights which encourage the development of self-confidence leading to people being able to defend such rights and seek remedies where violations take place.
In the past, in trying to expose human rights violations by state parties and powerful private entities, the private media and its journalists have become victims of violations to their right to freedom of expression.
However, it should be pointed out that the media are no saints.
They can also be perpetrators of human rights violations as was the case with Radio Television Mille Collines (RTMC), a private radio station in Rwanda that incited and instigated Hutu majority of the population to kill ethnic minority Tutsis through propaganda and hate speech.
It should however be understood that the central thesis of liberal media history in democratic process is the development of the mass media whose principle democratic role according to traditional liberal theory is to act as a check to the excesses of the state.
The media in Zimbabwe should play the watchdog role and provide information and resources for public opinion formation, they circulate information and ideas deemed essential for sustaining a vibrant civil society and the emergence of a democratic Zimbabwe.
The media should monitor the activities of the state and exposes abuses by the authorities in order to aid the Zimbabwe democratic transition.
In order for the Zimbabwean media to play this watchdog role, it should be free and anchored on the dictates of the free market to ensure its independence.
This free market argument was used effectively in the United States of America to justify broadcast deregulation which is vital in Zimbabwe as the country heads for elections.
Therefore, a press that is regulated and licensed could be subjected to censorship when it deals with problems arising from abuse of political power by the ruling elites as is the case with the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
It is my postulation that a critical examination of surveillance of the state is an important function of the media in a democratic society.
This entails making citizens know what is happening around them.
The media should also provide a platform for public political debate, facilitating the formation of public opinion and feeding that information to the public where it came from and also that the media in a democratic society serve as a channel to air and advocate for divergent political views by political parties and civic actors.
As a result, it is arguably difficult to separate the media from politics as they often overlap media scholars have observe.
This ideal symbiotic relationship between citizens and state authorities which assist to bring about a democratic society is what most countries both in colonial African times and post colonial emerging democracies has been at the centre of struggles between the state and the media outside its country such as private media in Zimbabwe in the past decade
Other scholars have argued that the press can actually strengthen democracy in weak states: “In any country where political institutions and opposition groups are not yet or no longer — operating freely, a press able to report and reflect popular discontent with the course of national policy or with the government of the moment can serve as an important warning light identifying early problems that demand solutions if political stability is to be maintained,” media academic Sanford Unger argues.
Unger further argues that the rarity of media freedoms in Third world countries and former Communist States was in his view proof of how difficult it is for democratic ethos to be socialised and take root.
But, the fact that press freedom has been traditionally one of the first liberties to be denied by totalitarian governments demonstrates its significances in emerging democracies.
It has therefore been argued that political and economic elites make use of the media for the daily routines of governing, for opinion and image management as well as for trouble shooting in times of crises.
It is further posited that seen in this light, media scholarship has an extremely critical and important role in the service of democracy.
Regardless of how one evaluates the functions and performance of the media, it is important to note that media institutions have become the major platforms, the privileged scenes of political activities in the democratisation process in Zimbabwe.
What the media needs to do as the country grapples with a political cabal determined to entrench dictatorship is to remain committed to its surveillance, watchdog, agenda-setting and adversarial roles in democratising the country’s politics under repressive conditions. – Pedzisai Ruhanya
*Pedzisai Ruhanya is a PhD Candidate and Director of Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.