The Christian Science Monitor has been tripped up by the African press and the internet, reporting as breaking news an item almost two years old. The gist of the story entitled "Churches feel vulnerable after Mugabe reelected in Zimbabwe" printed on 10 August 2013 is correct -- church leaders are worried what Robert Mugabe will do following his reelection as president -- but the background information used to pad out the article is incorrect.
I sympathize with the reporter on this story. This CSM story showcases the perils of re-write journalism. I use the internet for researching my stories also when I am not familiar with a topic. And I have been burned by Wikipedia and African newspapers too. Over the years I have covered religion in Africa I have learned how to smell a bad story -- my "spidey sense" goes off when something is not quite right. And it tingled, jingled and jangled with this piece.
The article -- written from Boston -- begins:
The atmosphere in Zimbabwe after the reelection of strongman Robert Mugabe is not one of great celebration, but of tension. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the main challenger, says he will not join in a new governing coalition but is contesting the credibility of the July 31 vote in court.
Fears are on the rise in the capital of Harare, reports say, that under one-party rule, a host of Mr. Mugabe’s old partners, cronies, henchmen, and friends will start to come out of the woodwork to take advantage of the hour.
So far so good. Without hearing the details, this story sounds right. Though I've not been back to Zimbabwe since 1999, I've kept up my contacts and have written 150 stories about its travails. At this point the article focuses on the fears of church leaders about what Pres. Mugabe will do next.
Foreign-owned banks, mines, and businesses have heard that, to fulfill a campaign promise made by Mugabe, their assets may be seized and restructured into a majority national ownership arrangement. Now it appears the considerable property of the Anglican church in Zimbabwe, though it is mostly a black membership, may also be under renewed scrutiny by the unscrupulous.
"Oh no", I thought, not again. Dr. Nolbert Kunonga -- an ex-Anglican bishop and one-time crony of Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party -- appeared to have come back from the political dead and returned to his evil ways. The article then moves to detail:
The chief Anglican bishop in Zimbabwe, Chad Gandiya, this week accused a renegade clergyman and friend of Mugabe of restarting a campaign using brutality, the courts, and police to seize churches, orphanages, and missions owned by mainstream Anglicans.
That also seemed likely, but Dr. Gandiya is only the Bishop of Harare -- one of five Anglican bishops in Zimbabwe. Though bishop of the diocese based in the capital, he is not the chief bishop for the country -- the chief bishop is the Archbishop of Central Africa who happens to live in Zambia. But the report seemed right. The diocesan Facebook page recently posted a note saying:
Anglicans across Zimbabwe must remain aware that the disbarred bishop intends to feature prominently in Church affairs and cause confusion, and is reportedly being revived by some evil forces who believe in his crusade to repossess our properties using the Constitutional Court. This is informational, for your knowledge, but remain prayerful. Victory is ours! We must not forget the pain. Anglicans are forgiving.
But after this point things become unglued. It cites an old New York Times story for color quotes on Dr. Kunonga -- a name worthy of a James Bond villain -- and then states things that set off my alarms.
Gandiya told reporters that Kunonga this week sent thugs into his own home in Harare, where they stole cellphones and records of church holdings and personnel. Gandiya also said that in the area of Murewa, outside Harare, local police are supporting Kunonga’s effort to take over a mission, and to evict 100 children from the Shearly Cripps orphanage, first started by British and American missionaries. ...
Kunonga’s splinter church for a time enjoyed standing but is now in legal limbo. But this could change again. Kunonga currently holds, in contravention of a court order, some of the largest Anglican church buildings and edifices in Harare, including the main cathedral, along with bank accounts and vehicles. ...
The head of the Anglican church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has said he is seeking a visit to speak with Mugabe about the issue.
I had reported all of these things almost two years ago for the Church of England Newspaper as had the secular press. Last year I reported on the expulsion of Dr. Kunonga from the cathedral and the return of the diocesan bank accounts and vehicles to Dr. Gandiya. Had something happened this past week?
A quick email to Dr. Gandiya returned an answer from Harare that the bishop was worried Dr. Kunonga might try something new. But they still possessed the cathedral, orphanage, schools, bank accounts and cars of the diocese. Dr. Kunonga and his allies had absconded with some things, and saddled the diocese with unpaid bills --but nothing more. Nor did the Archbishop of Canterbury's staff seem to know anything about plans for a meeting between Robert Mugabe and Justin Welby.
True, the Anglican Communion News Service did re-post the story. But ACNS is not a news service in the sense that it engages in journalism. It is not even the news service for the Anglican Communion. It releases press statements for some Anglican churches and agencies on behalf of the Anglican Consultative Council -- a London-based pan-Anglican organization that discusses issues of common concern but has no authority other than moral suasion. (And that has been damaged in recent years due to the Anglican sex wars with some of the African churches boycotting its meetings). It also provides an RSS service for Anglican related news articles. In other words, its re-posting of a story is no guarantee of authenticity.
It is pretty easy to see how the mistake was made. One of the hyperlinks in the CSM story goes to a piece in the Zim Daily. The date at the top of the page is today's date. And tomorrow the date at the top will be tomorrow's date. Even though the story is two years old. The examples pulled from this article for the CSM were true -- but no longer.
What is the moral of this story? Trust but verify.
Relying on a mis-dated story from the internet from an African newspaper can lead to journalistic disaster unless you verify the information with those involved. That cannot always be done -- following a Christianity Today story I wrote on Zimbabwe in 2011, the government press office stopped responding to my emails. But without verification, a reporter takes his professional life in his hands when relying on uncorroborated stories from the African press.
Journalists should thus be afeard. The internet is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that seem to give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about a reporter's ears, offering him the mirage of an easy ending to a story on deadline.
And, I would also say a second lesson to be learned from this fiasco is that there is value in engaging specialist reporters. it may be cheaper to keep things in house or out source everything to the wire services -- but as the old adage goes "you get what you pay for" -- and this holds true for journalism also.