Why a free press has to be free

HARARE - Most countries pride themselves on having a free press. A free press has to be free to make any difference to the running of a country.

In the United States, there is no pretence — as there is in many African countries — of a government-run newspaper or radio station posing as something else.

The Voice of America runs editorials everyday which are announced as representing the views of the US government. Nothing of the sort is featured in many government, TV and radio stations in Africa.

This does not necessarily exclude practices which many might translate as representing “censorship”.

My example is culled from a 1972 broadcast featuring four African journalists being interviewed on the conduct of the presidential election which featured Watergate. I represented a Zambian newspaper.

We were engaged in a freewheeling debate on the aftermath of the campaign.

The three others were from Sudan, Ethiopia and Ghana.

The convener was fair enough to let the journalists express their views as freely as they wished to. Inevitably, Richard Nixon featured as the main player in the entire debate.

Most of the criticism centred around how Watergate was allowed to occur at all. It featured the US president, running for a second term.

To save time, let’s just say in editing the film for TV, an entire section featuring Watergate was deleted. The journalists had asked pertinent questions such as: “How could the US President be allowed to go so far in trying to cheat his way into re-election?”

Was this not truly chicanery of the worst kind in a country boasting as a great democracy? The journalists were from Zambia, Sudan, Ghana and Ethiopia. Their questions and comments were what some people would describe as “high octane” content.

It made for exciting TV footage, allowing the Africans to keep wondering how all that gerrymandering could be allowed in a system supposedly guaranteed to be faultless.

All this came out only after we had viewed the TV footage back home. I asked the US official who screened it for me back in Lusaka why so many incriminating features of the film had been deleted.

“I don’t know,” he said. You could not accuse him of having “doctored” the film. We suspected Washington had done the dirty work.

In general, I take the view that, if they can do it without getting caught, most governments will lie their way out of a sticky situation.

But having worked for government newspapers in Zambia and Zimbabwe, I can swear that the practice is more prevalent in Africa and other Third World countries than anywhere else.

In many African and Asian countries, mostly, journalists have been harassed — and often jailed — for insisting on publishing what they believed to be the “facts” and not what the government-owners of the papers insisted were not “cooked up” stories.

There is, in Africa, particularly, a very casual attitude towards the “sacredness” of the facts.

In many cases, the editors are persuaded or even bribed by their employers to peddle “untruths”, if they can get away with it.

In the two largest democracies (?) on the continent, South Africa and Nigeria, there have been practices described by some critics as pandering to the whims of the ruling regimes.

Most of the upheavals on the continent could be ascribed to a lackadaisical attitude by the media to handle the truth — mostly out of fear.

The horrors committed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the police brutality at Marikana in South Africa could be examples.

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