Scribes in danger…again

HARARE - In his 1979 epic, The Press In Africa, Frank Barton writes of the African journalist having degenerated into an “endangered species.”

His primary theme was that since the dawn of independence from colonialism in 1957, this particular scribe had slowly lost identity as a watchdog of society’s rights and privileges, to become a purveyor of government propaganda.

Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party had pioneered the frightening notion that the journalist’s primary role was to safeguard “the people’s rights” as defined by the rulers — the ruling party.

The journalist’s traditional and crucial role of ensuring the people’s rights were eroded by those of the ruling class — opposition could be anathema, if not deadly.

Today, there are members of the lunatic fringe of pan-Africanism who insist that the African journalist’s role is to promote African interests — at whatever cost to the facts, their own dignity and reputation.

Their assigned role in society was to write stories and commentaries which virtually translated into mealie-mouthed stories or commentaries often dressed up to sound like the learned treatises of hard-rock political, economic or social epistles.

The one creature they would not be would be critical or balanced.

Not once, however, did Barton hint at the journalist being a glorified “Baba Jukwa”— engaged in pouring scorn on one faction of a ruling party as opposed to another.

Barton was mostly concerned at attempts by governments to circumscribe the role of the media by warning them of not turning into what they described as “enemies of the state”, “imperialist stooges.”

In a nutshell, they criticised the government at their own peril.

If they even once “stepped out of line”, they risked being pilloried as “anti-government”, “anti-people”.

Barton referred briefly to my sacking by the then president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, as deputy editor-in-chief of Times Newspapers Limited in 1975.

The government had taken over the media house from Lonrho.

Barton did not include, in his book, the conclusion of the exciting episode, which culminated in my reinstatement, pay and perks intact, in 1977.

Kaunda had discovered a letter I had written to him to explain why I had published the story which had led to my dismissal.

In essence, Barton’s general theme was perfectly justified. The media ought to play a pivotal role in safeguarding the ordinary people’s civil and human rights at all times — at whatever cost to their and their newspapers’ existence.

The most curious aspect of the Baba Jukwa saga — some people have called it, without apology, a scandal— is the involvement of Jonathan Moyo, the Media minister.

It’s him who appointed as editor of The Sunday Mail the 28-year-old man who is alleged to be moonlighting as “Baba Jukwa.”

Most editors get to that stage after a long spell in the field — 50 years or thereabouts. Only the real geniuses get there so early.

For the Zimbabwean journalist, the path to real autonomy has been difficult, to put it mildly.

The major handicap has been the intolerance of criticism from the ruling class.

The reaction to the original Daily News and its Sunday edition, provides a frightening example of this lack of neutrality or balance by the
authorities.

After the closure of the two papers in 2003, the number of young people who found themselves jobless was alarming.

Even older members of the staff succumbed to the trauma of being unemployed at their age.

These were experienced people, with a pedigree worthy of recognition in their country. Among these were Leo Hatugari and Lawrence Chikuwira. They paid with their lives for their dedication to a profession in which they had excelled.

It was a hell of a way to repay their dedication to their country.

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