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Media coverage of President Mugabe's health: Ethical journalism
sacrificed for sensational rewards
The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe
April 24, 2012
MMPZ notes with
concern the grave journalistic misconduct that characterised the
recent renewed media speculation about the health of President Mugabe
in the wake of his two-week absence, ostensibly in Singapore to
oversee university postgraduate study arrangements for his daughter,
of the domestic media took a serious knock over Easter when a report
in a London-based online news agency, The Zimbabwe Mail (10/4),
presumptuously reported the 88-year-old President was "battling
for his life" in an unnamed Singapore hospital. The agency,
apparently owned by a locally registered company, the Zimbabwe News
and Media (PVT) Ltd, cited an unnamed ZANU PF "insider"
as saying Mugabe was "undergoing intensive treatment in Singapore"
and that some members of his family had flown by private chartered
plane from Harare on the evening of Easter Saturday (April 7th)
to be with him.
Not a shred
of corroborative evidence was provided to support these claims.
Apart from the
brief referencing of the claims to the unnamed ZANU PF official,
the agency did not make any attempt to check the accuracy of its
story with additional, independent sources, a basic journalistic
prerequisite aimed at preventing the publication of untrustworthy
information. It was especially important in this case, given the
gravity of the 'news' about Mugabe's health and
the natural public interest in his welfare.
report: Mugabe battling for life in Singapore, Cabinet meetings
suspended, merely used its unfounded allegations as a platform to
regurgitate speculation about Mugabe's "failing health",
its alleged disruption of government operations and its projected
effect on ZANU PF's and the country's "political
fairy tale constitutes a serious case of professional journalistic
misconduct and damages the reputation of the media profession. It
also provides ammunition to those looking for excuses to control
media activity by demanding additionally repressive laws that gag
free expression under the guise of controlling "irresponsible
should be stated that laws already exist that provide more than
adequate redress to those whose reputations may have been harmed
by false and inaccurate reporting. It would be an offence against
the principle of freedom of expression if more pre-emptive legislation
is added to those laws that already exist that suffocate media activity
Mail's coverage of Mugabe's alleged ill health also
raises fresh questions about the credibility of new information
technologies and new media communications systems. Although online
news agencies help to ensure that more information is available
to more people than ever before, it is imperative that they -
like the traditional news media - also uphold professional
journalistic standards in their reporting.
from The Zimbabwe Mail story holds important implications for online
publications, as public trust in these websites is undermined when
these media deliver erroneous and unreliable information.
It is, perhaps,
to the organization's credit that it has at least issued a
public apology and apparently fired the website's editor over
its alarmist report, which was, of course, seized upon by other
media locally and internationally.
outlets like Radio
VOP, SW Radio Africa and The Daily News also didn't do
their reputations any good by rushing to produce their own versions
of the story based on the Zimbabwe Mail's report and others
in the international media, and although they carried denials from
ZANU PF officials, their coverage mostly reinforced, rather than
clarified, the ill-health hearsay.
For example, The Daily News' story What happens if Mugabe
dies (14/4) fuelled public concern by characterising the speculation
on Mugabe's ill health as "more plausible than usual"
without providing any supporting evidence for this claim.
Radio Africa (10/4) insisted that in spite of ZANU-PF's denials,
it was "clear the 88-year-old is receiving some form of treatment
in Singapore . . . comes back into the country looking 'energetic'
until the next relapse" again without providing evidence for
its claim. It speculated: "It's also clear something
'serious' made him miss two Cabinet meetings and another
one for his party."
station did note that the lack of "accurate information"
about the President's health contributed to the "rumours
and speculation". But this didn't stop SW Radio Africa
(10/4) and The Daily News (11/4) from using Mugabe's "deathbed"
story as a basis to speculate about a post-Mugabe era.
Such hasty "copycat"
reporting obviously carries its own inherent dangers of repeating
the inaccuracies and falsehoods of the initial report, but does
not exonerate these media from the responsibility of attempting
to establish the truth of the situation before rushing into print
or to broadcast the "news".
However, the story has also provided a graphic illustration of the
culture of secrecy that shrouds most government activity these days,
including and especially regarding Mugabe's health status.
In any participatory
democracy the people have a right to be fully informed about the
policies and activities of their government in order to judge its
performance, plan for the future and to call its officials to account.
But this transparency is singularly missing from the governance
practices of most government departments.
Thus the legendary
veil of secrecy around the issue of Mugabe's health has made
it extremely difficult for the media to accurately inform their
audiences about the truth regarding the health of Zimbabwe's
most senior public official.
is a need to balance the private and public lives of government
officials, holders of public office, including Mugabe, have an obligation
to be open about private interests that relate to their public duties
and to be accountable to the public where these interests have a
direct bearing on the country. Failure to disclose these interests
fuels public speculation and rumour-mongering that is naturally
reflected in the media.
This is the
inevitable consequence of secretive government management systems,
and government officials like Media, Information and Publicity Minister
Webster Shamu, who was widely quoted in the state-controlled Herald
and Chronicle (13/2) criticizing the local media for "pandering
to the . . . imperialists" and pushing a "regime change"
agenda, only have themselves to blame for failing to inform the
nation adequately - and honestly - about the activities
of the President and his health.
Nor is it surprising
in such a restrictive media environment that we should witness equally
"irresponsible journalism" emanating from The Sunday
Mail (15/4) suggesting - without any substantiation -
that the story about Mugabe's ill health was a creation of
the MDC-T. Of course, this is not journalism at all, but an extension
of the propaganda promoted by the likes of Shamu and his ZANU PF
colleagues who control these state media outlets.
It is to the
credit of other private media institutions that they were more measured
in their response to the story about Mugabe's ill health.
the Zimbabwe Independent (13/4) Editor's Memo acknowledged
websites as important sources of information, but described sensational
rumours and reports on Mugabe's illness as a sign of unethical
journalism, lack of accountability and professionalism by the Zimbabwe
Mail, saying such reports damaged the reputation of the profession.
The paper also urged Mugabe's advisors and spokesmen to talk
to the media to avoid fuelling speculation and damaging ripple effects.
"Instead of always waiting to react to reports about Mugabe's
health, it would be useful for them to clarify this issue once and
expressed similar sentiments and interpreted the latest development
as the "downside of closing the media space for governments
trying to keep a lid on information filtering out".
Indeed, it is
the responsibility of the government to be more forthcoming about
the activities of its officials - especially the President,
and especially in view of his advanced age. But the "mind-your-own-business"
attitude of government is no excuse for any news media organization
to abandon its professional duty to expose the truth with factual
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