By Dr Tafataona Mahoso
COMMEMORATIVE holidays such as Africa Day on May 25 offer opportunities for national media outlets and platforms to help their audiences understand the relevance of the events of history being remembered to our present circumstances and to the future.
Radio talk shows have caught the nation’s special attention because of the recent increase in the number of local and national radio stations since 2015.
At the recently concluded workshop on ‘Election Reporting Training’ for the print media which was jointly organised in Kariba by the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), all key presenters noted with concern the glaring lack of capacity among some of the persons purporting to anchor talk shows and other current affairs programmes.
It was agreed, in general, that most of the supposed anchor persons lacked the background depth needed to anchor such complex programmes.
As a result, the supposed anchors were relying on random callers to fill huge stretches of talk time with hate-speech, insults, innuendo, inaccuracies and even lies.
Instead of protecting their listeners by disposing of each inaccurate statement or each prejudicial generalisation made on-air, the anchor person tended to say: “Thank you for your contribution,” or “Thank you for calling,” or to issue a vague reply to the caller indicating a recognition that the caller’s contribution may be wrong or inappropriate while failing to pin-point the error or inappropriateness, thereby leaving audiences second-guessing the wrong or inappropriateness of the contribution.
Where the anchor person is competent and well-prepared, every lie, every inaccurate or inappropriate contribution should actually open an opportunity for the public education of the caller and the audience.
Every year, the last week of May offers a great opportunity for current affairs programmes to help their audiences review developments of regional, continental and global importance for Africans at home and abroad.
On May 26 2018, I stumbled upon one radio talk show on town and city governance.
The anchor person then used the case of a rich man who sourced and donated equipment to city and town councils around the country.
It was assumed from the sound of the name of the donor that he was white.
This supposed racial identity was used to drag the whole discussion into a debate on supposed racial characteristics of white people as opposed to Africans when it comes to ability and willingness to support good governance, to unite, to co-operate with others and to be generous.
An African caller using Shona declared that: “Vanhu vatema havambofa vakaita zvakaitwa nemurungu uyu.
Varungu vakasikwa nemoyo munyoro neganda rakanaka.
Isu vatema takasikwa neganda rakaoma.
Saka hatibatsirane kana kubatana.”
Only one caller sheepishly tried to say that the conversation was not supposed to be about race or skin colour, but she was not given time to say how and why it was not about race or skin colour.
For me, as a listener, it was not even clear that the alleged donor was of European descent.
The assumption was agreed on the basis of the sound of the name.
Given the fact that MaDzimbahwe were still celebrating Africa Day on May 26 2018, the scandal created by this radio talk show was devastating.
If white people were naturally good and if the donor in the conversation was indeed a Rhodesian who became a Zimbabwean in 1980 because of the African revolution called Chimurenga, what was this radio station trying to teach its audience?
If white people were naturally good and generous, why were we celebrating Mbuya Nehanda, Sekuru Kaguvi, Chingaira, Winnie Mandela, Cde Herbert Chitepo, Cde Alfred Nikita Mangena or Queen Nzinga who all spent their lives fighting white supremacy, white enslavement, apartheid and colonialism?
Did this supposed white donor bring with him (from wherever he came) to Zimbabwe the wealth which enabled him to give or source donations for city councils in Zimbabwe?
Radio talk shows for the most part disappointed their audiences.
Apart from choosing narcissistic politicians who used public air time to demonstrate their personal capacity to insult each other on-air, these slots were dominated by mediocre and directionless ‘conversations’ of a speculative and even vindictive nature.
Talk radio is contributing not only to gross distortions of our economic and political reality but also to intellectual laziness whereby any outlandish, unproven and totally baseless claim may be aired completely unchallenged just because the contributor must enjoy freedom of expression.
Before I can give more examples of issues on which such distortions and exhibitions of intellectual laziness currently manifest themselves, let me enumerate some principles which form the basis of the necessary debate on the merits and demerits of talk shows:
l First is the reality that general media users are vulnerable to broadcast lies and distortions because they are not an organised constituency.
Journalists have their associations while editors have their editors’ forum.
Politicians have their political parties, political commissars and spokespersons.
The Government itself is well-organised and can deal decisively with reckless attacks.
But the ordinary listener, especially the young and still impressionable, looks up to those who appear on radio and TV programmes as sources of well-researched, well-thought-out and reliable information.
This vulnerable listener may succumb to the old syndrome: “Ichokwadi nokuti ndakachinzwa paradio; Ichokwadi nokuti chakaparurwa panational TV; Ichokwadi nokuti chakabuda mubepanhau.”
l Second is the conflict between a public education, public affairs approach, on one hand and a marketing approach, on the other, to radio and television.
This conflict affects talk shows especially. From a public education and public affairs perspective, callers who base their opinion on lies or on grossly inaccurate information have to be challenged if not corrected by the anchor or by better informed callers.
It is up to the anchor to source the counter-callers who correct the lies or to do the research used to correct those lies.
Lies and gross distortions of critical information on critical national issues must never be allowed to masquerade as truth.
However, from the point of view of marketing the radio station and the personalities involved, the objective is to achieve the perception that the station is popular; the anchor is popular (notorious); therefore the large number of ‘talking heads’ attracted equals a higher advertising rate and advertising revenue.
The fact that the discussions amount to nothing less than mere gossip, speculation, innuendo and lies is glossed over or even justified as the cost of ensuring freedom of expression.
In this marketing approach, the so-called anchor or host does not anchor and has no anchorage.
He or she is just a ‘bambazonke’ who routinely says: “Interesting. Thank you for your contribution!”
The anchor has no real substantive content of her/his own and apparently and sadly has no idea which callers or panelists could be mobilised to correct the scandalous claims being made in the name of free opinion.
l The third main principle, by way of providing context, is that it is wrong to assume that one does not need facts simply because one is, after all, only voicing an opinion.
In professional journalism and in academia, one needs really tight facts to back up an opinion.
In an objective report, we may accept perceptions and appearances as factual from the point of view of the observer or perceiver who was there.
But in opinion, because it is intended to change minds or to direct discourse, we must insist on the factual basis being provided to justify that opinion.
There are other examples of reckless or baseless opinion broadcast on talk radio programmes recently.
The assumption that at some point before the land revolution in Zimbabwe, this country used to be the ‘bread-basket of Africa’ is repeated so often that it has become a household belief.
It is uttered so soften and so carelessly that it is never made clear whether this breadbasket was during the Rhodesian era or in Zimbabwe before the land revolution.
This myth was repeated on ZBC programmes as recently as January 2 2018.
However, if this claim refers to Rhodesia, why was there such a huge youth uprising that a 15-year liberation war had to be fought?
Did all those young people ignore a flourishing ‘bread-basket of Africa’ to go to war?
Why did Africa support such a liberation war at such a huge cost, if the same Africa was benefitting from the Rhodesian bread-basket?
If this is meant to refer to Zimbabwe after independence but before the land revolution, the drought and hunger that affected the country in 1992 – 1993 would appear to expose the claim as a hoax or myth.
It became clear in 1992 that the white minority controlling the bulk of our land had ignored the food security requirements of the nation and moved from food production to game-keeping, horticulture (flowers for export to Europe) and tobacco.
The Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank on the country in 1990 did not just make food insecurity worse for the majority; it also meant that there was no thriving bread-basket.
Why would a thriving breadbasket need ESAP, let alone accept it?
Landless Africans had to sit and watch prices of foodstuffs from the few remaining food producers escalate to unaffordable levels.
The 1992 drought fuelled the demand for land redistribution because it exposed the claim of ‘the bread-basket of Africa’ for what it was: a white-perpetrated hoax meant to pre-empt the African land reclamation movement.
Today, some of the radio talk shows are being used to prevent us from understanding that we have actually to break new ground after the land revolution.
Instead, we are being told that our objective is to restore the country’s past status as ‘the bread-basket of Africa’!
The second claim, routinely made on some of the radio talk shows, is that things were fine currency-wise and liquidity-wise from 2009 to 2013.
Therefore, all we need to do to solve our currency and liquidity problems is ‘just bring in US dollars and withdraw Bond notes from circulation’!
The truth is that, when on the surface things seemed to be fine from 2009 to 2013, we were squandering the US dollars which should have gone into our reserves.
The available US dollars were also not financing any meaningful production.
When the US dollars became exhausted and it became clear that there was no reserve at all, those with access to the remaining US dollars panicked and started to externalise the US dollars willy-nilly.
So, the apparent good times actually contributed to two serious problems: Squandering our potential foreign currency reserves and forcing those with some US dollars left to externalise them.
The so-called ‘good times’ actually made externalisation easy and seemingly benign.
Pundits claiming that things were fine from 2009 to 2013 and asking the nation to return there are glossing over something fundamental: That so-called dollarisation was not sustainable from the beginning and that this was always clear to many.
The Bond notes challenge is a secondary challenge arising from the unsustainability of those alleged ‘good years’ 2009 – 2013.
The third issue distorted in talk shows which I choose to highlight here is the claim that continuing price hikes which began with gossip-induced panic in the market in September 2017 demonstrates the failure of the new era under the new administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Routinely, both panelists and callers engage in a form of chicanery which the hosts or anchor persons ignore or fail to see: That the issue of dishonest and reckless price-hikes is first and foremost an issue for the so-called Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) and the Retailers Association of Zimbabwe (RAZ).
In any self-respecting nation, this would be the normal approach.
The existence of a whole CZI and an entire ZNCC would imply industry pricing procedures, industry checks on the conduct of members and industry ethics.
This would be enough to stop any panics, to expose reckless price gauging by any player and to inspire consumer confidence.
The fact that we do not see this sort of industry leadership may suggest that the CZI, RAZ and ZNCC are led by persons masquerading as leaders of a non-existent industry let alone confederation.
Only then could we justify direct state intervention; only then could we ask the new Government to step in directly.
Indeed, the so-called manufacturers demanded and received the protection of Statutory Instrument (SI) 64 under the assumption that they would roll-out a programme of effective import substitution resulting in a win-win situation for industry and for consumers.
The price-hikes the nation has suffered since September 2017 represent a huge slap in the face for both Government and the consumer for allowing SI 64!
All the industry associations really owe the public some convincing answers.
And the talk radio producers and hosts need to frame the price-hikes issue differently from the way they have been focusing on the state.
Dr Tafataona Mahoso is a former chairman of the ZBC Board of Directors, the last chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe and current CEO of the Zimbabwe Media Commission. He writes in his personal capacity.