Zimbabwe is expected to join other nations Friday in marking World Press Freedom Day being commemorated under the theme: Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation, focusing on current challenges faced by media in elections, along with the media’s potential in supporting peace and reconciliation processes. The 26th celebration of World Press Freedom Day is jointly organized by UNESCO, the African Union Commission and the Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The main event will take place in Addis Ababa from May 1st to May 3rd at the African Union Headquarters. World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 1993, following the recommendation of UNESCO's General Conference. Since then, May 3rd, the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty. In this first edition of a four-piece series on marking World Press Freedom Day, VOA Zimbabwe Service’s Gibbs Dube speaks with former chief executive officer of the Alpha Media Holdings, publishers of The Standard, NewsDay and The Independent.
Gibbs Dube: Zimbabweans are expected to commemorate World Press Freedom on Friday. The theme for this year’s event is: Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation. Talking about the media, democracy and disinformation. Do you think the media is doing the right thing?
Raphael Khumalo: It’s difficult to say what is right, because remember media is controlled and serves a particular purpose, depending on who owns that media and what their intentions are. And you also have fake news in there. It is possible and it’s much easier to deal with fake news and to identify the fake news where there is multiplicity of media. Whereas unlike in a situation where for example, there is monopoly over media, and monopoly is either held through those who own, who control…in other words, who are the ruling elite or connected to the elite. Then that becomes very difficult to decipher, which is fake news which is real news.
But in a situation where there is multiplicity of media for example, the situation is different. So yes, democracy will thrive in an environment where there is multiplicity of media, and it will still thrive, even where you still have fake news because people are well informed, have choice of what media to listen to, and therefore they are not easily bamboozled into believing one thing or the other. That is really the issue.
So the theme is quite appropriate, it particularly speaks to those societies where the plurality of media, whether you are talking about radio, in this case commercial radio, or you are talking about community radio stations, where we are still particularly in our environment where we are still stuck in the eras of the 60s where we have one broadcaster, ZBC, one TV broadcaster, ZTV, then you have serious problems.
And then of course someone will then say oh, there are these others – but look at the ownership structure, where do they go to? They go back to the center, so that’s where the issue is really.
Gibbs Dube: How is democracy enhanced in terms of having all these kind of fake news, because people actually believe what they read? It’s difficult actually to sift some of this information. So does it start from the journalists themselves?
Obviously Mr. Dube, it starts from journalists themselves, and number two, also it goes back to the populace themselves. The population will always go back and say, mmmm, if I have read it in this particular media, I am likely to believe it. And then, mmm, if it is this one, I think I need another source, to cross check. But remember as I said to you, where there is media is in a particular situation is controlled, or a large part of the media is owned by government or pro-government institutions, and there’s very little independent media there, it becomes very difficult for the population to actually believe is this fake news or is this for real. So I think this is where there is definitely a challenge in terms of dissemination of information.
And obviously when you have such situations, democracy does not thrive either. But look, fake news thrives in other environments. Check for example in the UK, talking for example in Europe. There is fake news that circulates there, but it doesn’t mean that democracy is not thriving. But like I said, the counter to it is the multiplicity of media channels that the people are able to listen to alternative and counter check and cross check.
But look if for example you listen and there was an article that came out which said during the cyclone Idai, for example, there was an earthquake, no one else outside the realm of those who said it, heard or felt the earthquake, but it was all just traditionalists, or those who were passing fake news as real news who started circulating such information to say that there was an earthquake that happened, at the same time that there was a cyclone, but nobody else heard it. But if you are there for the single source of information, then by all means you are going to be taken for a big, big ride.
Gibbs Dube: Media laws, do they actually affect the depth, the width and length of democracy? Do you think good media laws lead to better information being given to the public?
Raphael Khumalo: Dube, I will say to you that one of the major challenges if you operate in Zimbabwe. I will give my own personal experience. Over the year, I’ve made sure I’d read a South African newspaper, on a weekly basis. And every time you read a South African newspaper, you looked and you saw the depth of information, of just how many access the journalist writing the story has. Compared to the lack there of a journalist here. It speaks volumes about access to information and that access to information is not superficial. It happens because we have AIPPA (Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) here and the South Africans don’t.
And that that speaks to just how much do the citizens know about what is going on, whether you are talking about in the army barracks, whether you are talking about in the police camps, how much are the journalists prepared to go and dig in, they won’t, because of the existence of the stringent laws, either, they are there in AIPPA, they are there in POSA (Public Order and Security Act) and various other restrictive legislation that make it difficult.
Do you think for example, the new book that came out in South Africa, Gangster State, would ever be written in Zimbabwe, here?
Former Zimbabwean journalist Miriam Sibada says fake news is chipping away some pillars of democracy in some societies at a time when citizen journalism has taken center stage in circulating true and false information. VOA Zimbabwe Service’s Gibbs Dube speaks with Madziwa about this and related issues.
Gibbs Dube (GD): What’s your take on media and democracy in times of disinformation?
Miriam Sibanda (MS): What I am seeing and finding very worrisome is the fact that there is so much information floating out there, but it is taking away from democracy. So instead of enhancing democracy, all this information - the fake stories, the disinformation - is actually working against us, and the media is no longer able to play its intended role which is to education, inform and entertain, because how do you educate your readership or your listeners when you are dealing with false information. What you are instead doing is racketing up emotions, you are denying people a chance to critically engage with issues, because the starting point is not solid as it were, because now there is all sorts of information there and unlike in the past where you read a story, listened to a news bulletin, you could make a decision. I think a lot of us now, your sixth sense tells you after you have read something, is to say, mmmmm, is this true, is this correct, and you find that you are having to fact check before you can decide or even pass on the information, to anyone or use it, for whatever purposes that you intend to use the information you are reading, an article or listening to an article, for. So as a result, its taking away from the intended purpose of democracy where you are supposed to make informed decisions. How do you make informed decisions, when you are being informed by lies, as it were.
GD: so now looking at filtering this kind of information, how do you tell that this is fake news? And for a common person, how do they do that?
MS: It’s not easy to tell. I’ll be honest with you, even myself, you know, a trained media person, I have fallen for fake news several time. But with time now, you learn, if it is a written article, you are checking for spelling mistakes, the grammar, the presentation, and once you pick those tale, tale signs…but there are others who have perfected the art of fake news, so you then have to go down to consistency – does this make sense, is it flowing? But sometimes you will find, some of the stories might not make a lot of sense, but they turn out to be true, and this is emanating from the fact that you also have, you know, this trend of citizen journalism, where people are seeing things and they are reporting on them, but they don’t know how best to do it, and sometimes the information is presented haphazardly, and there is the danger that you can mistake it for false news, when in actual fact it is true and factual, just not packaged right.
GD: So is there any way citizen journalists can may be used for the sake of enhancing democracy, and even common journalism itself, can it be used somehow, now, since you are saying that you know, you can no longer trust sources of news. So how can this be all integrated to come out with some truthful information, circulating out there?
MS: I think we have to go back to the basics, starting with those who are trained for the job, to just say, you know, address the 4 Ws and H, as best you can. And the citizen journalists, they need to be taught, they need to enhance their skills by reading and listening to those that are trained to do it. And I think the simplest starting point is just working with the truth. If it is two people that you have seen engaged in an accident, or in a fight, let it be two and not be ballooned to scores of people. You know those basics – if we start there, we are giving people the correct information and then from there, they can make informed decisions.
But I think there’s also need to just go all out to train our citizens on how to relay news or information, so that it benefits all of us, and just make people aware that lies will not help us at all.
GB: Going forward Miss Madziwa you know that it is very difficult to train everybody to understand the art of disseminating information. With everybody being a journalist, how best can this be done in order for people to get true information.
MS: I think it has to start with each individual just saying, you know what, I will try to tell this as best as I can, as truthfully as I can … Try and leave out the emotions, try not to exaggerate and just say this is what happened so that the other person gets the correct context and understanding of what it is you are talking about. And it is audios and video clips let they be clips that give context and meaning to what you are raising. That way I think we make a start but I think those of you who are still practicing, you have to take it upon yourselves to bring on board these citizen journalists and help them learn the art of telling a story and telling it as truthfully as possible. Let truth be the starting point and then the other details can follow later.
GD: Can politicians play any part in this kind of news dissemination in order for societies to get the truth out there?
MS: Yes, I think everybody has a role to play. With our politicians I think the starting point is just consistency in their messages because one of the things has to happen is the confusion from the minds of the reader arises from politicians who blow hot and cold depending on their audience. So, if politicians can be consistent in their message, we are not saying they should use the same words or whatever but the messages must be consistent so that if then they are reported to be saying something out of turn the readers and listeners can say hmmmmm this does not sound like our leader, doesn’t sound like the person we voted for and then they go out of the way to try and find out whether he was quoted correctly, the story was written in context. So, it really just starts being consistent with the messages they give out on the various issues that they decided to engage in or engage on.