Trying to bring media, government together in Zimbabwe

THE picture portrayed by most foreign media about the situation in Zimbabwe is one in which the local media are involved in a daily pitched battle against the government.

That might be so, but I was privileged to be a participant in a workshop last week where the usual protagonists and adversaries sat down and talked to each other.

The workshop, hosted by the Parliament of Zimbabwe and facilitated by the State University of New York, brought together about 60 people in all, including members of parliament from the ruling Zanu-PF, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, along with journalists from the state-owned media and the opposition (or independent) media.

It was held in Kadoma, a little town about two hours’ drive from Harare on the road to Bulawayo.

It was the first time that parliamentary representatives, from both major political parties in Zimbabwe, had sat down with representatives of the media to trash out areas of concern on both sides. The decision to have the workshop was made in December already, but Zimbabwe’s bureaucracy is not unlike other bureaucracies, so the workshop finally happened last week.

I was approached a few weeks before the event to be the chief facilitator. I was supposed to work with two resource people, one a Ugandan journalist, and the other a public relations practitioner from Zimbabwe. By the time the workshop started, two more Zimbabwean facilitators had been added and this raised some eyebrows among some of the participants. The two extra facilitators turned out to be a bonus, because we now had enough facilitators to spread the workload evenly.

The seriousness with which the government of Zimbabwe viewed this workshop was evident by the presence of the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and the leader of the House, Patrick Chinamasa, and the Minister of Information and Publicity, Jonathan Moyo. Also present for parts of the workshop were a few Deputy Ministers, the Speaker of Parliament, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Clerk of Parliament, Austin Zvoma, and the chief whips of both Zanu-PF and the MDC.

Unlike many workshops I have attended in South Africa, the Zimbabwe workshop was lively and vigorous, with equal participation from the media and the parliamentary representatives. Members of parliament in Zimbabwe take themselves very serious and address and introduce each other as “Honourable”, which probably helps to take some of the sting out of vicious personal attacks.

The issues raised on both sides would be familiar to South Africans, such as MPs not understanding the way media works, and the media not understanding the way parliament works.

There was a complaint about MPs not being accessible and one woman journalist complained about sexual harassment from male MPs. The way the entire audience responded with laughter, shows that Zimbabwean society still has a long way to go before it can consider itself gender-sensitive.

MPs also complained about being under-resourced and, as such, not being able to respond properly to queries from journalists. Some of the MPs complained about journalists not covering their constituency work. Others complained about being ignored by the television cameras covering parliament.

In the end, after all the complaints had been listened to by both sides, the workshop drew up an action plan that had short-, medium- and long-term objectives.

Among the short-term objectives is to get members of parliament to meet with editors and to visit some of the publishing houses so that they can acquaint themselves with the way the media operates. Journalists who do not normally cover parliament would also be encouraged to visit parliament, so they can understand the workings of parliament better.

It was also agreed that MPs should be trained in how to deal with the media more effectively. This training will include how to conduct press conferences and how to prepare for interviews.

I was disappointed that some of the recent, blatant attacks on media freedom in Zimbabwe were not discussed at all, but maybe that is the subject of another workshop.

The workshop, everyone agreed, was long overdue and just the beginning of a process. Part of the value of the workshop was that, for the first time, members of the rival Zanu-PF and the MDC, sat down and talked. As did members of the state-owned media and the independent media.

The Minister of Justice, Parliamentary and Legal Affairs, Patrick Chinamasa, properly summed up this change in attitude.

“We are mixing freely now,” he said, “but something happens when we enter the parliamentary chamber. It is almost like we become possessed by demons and start attacking each other.”

One of the abiding memories of this workshop for me will be the sight of Zanu-PF and MDC MPs enjoying drinks together in the bar at night, and  Chinamasa actively engaging a journalist from the independent Daily News.

It showed the value of talking, something which Zimbabweans might be beginning to understand at last.

(First published in the Sunday Independent in 2002. Not sure of the month.)