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Economy needs a free press

By Chris Mhike


ON Wednesday May 3, media workers in most parts of the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day.
 
In Zimbabwe, the day was commemorated, not celebrated. For many journalists in the country, it was more lamentation than jubilation, spec

ifically in relation the state of press freedom. Lamentation because press freedom in Zimbabwe either exists in small quantities in certain sectors, or it has been totally lost in others. 

Key media players say in the past few years, press freedom in this country has been reduced from being the fundamental right that it normally is, down to being only a privilege to be enjoyed at the benevolence of the authorities.

It should be noted that although “the press” generally refers to the print media, in the realm of human rights discourse “press freedom” ordinarily refers to both print and electronic media.

“Press freedom” could therefore in a sense be equated to “media freedom”.  And press/ media freedom may be defined as  a state where the press/media is not unreasonably restricted in the information gathering and dissemination process; not subject to draconian forms of interference such as unreasonable censorship or pre-publication/broadcasting espionage; and not subject to the imposition of pre-operational legal, political or financial conditions by government or any regulatory authority.

It is clear therefore that the level of press freedom in Zimbabwe is well below the optimum.

Since the promulgation of the notorious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) and the equally despotic Public Order and Security Act (Posa) at least four newspaper titles have been banned. The forbidden include: the Daily News, the Daily News on Sunday, The Tribune, and the Weekly Times.

That way, the information gathering and dissemination process, that is journalism, was severely curtailed.  Most of the remaining flagships are either state controlled or they are influenced by the state, or by other powers through censorship or espionage activity.

The surviving independent newspapers, freelance journalists, and foreign scribes visiting the country still face stiff restrictions in the exercise of their duties.  For prospective media players, pre-operational prohibitive conditions abound. 

Aippa and Posa are aided by other legislative nightmares such as the Official Secrets Act, the Broadcasting Services Act, the Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act, the Presidential Powers Act, etc.

The misery of the press in Zimbabwe is notably compounded by the prevailing governance crisis.  Of that crisis, the most critical component is the state of the country’s economy.

There is indeed a relationship between press freedom and the economy. Press freedom is not just a human rights issue — it is also a business issue, relevant to the economy.  As every sane person knows, the Zimbabwean economy has indeed gone to the dogs. 

Inflation is officially above 900%, and realistically over 1 000%. It has the weakest currency in the region.  In the aftermath of the heinous Operation Murambatsvina, unemployment could well have exceeded the widely known 80% mark. Zesa fails to supply sufficient electricity. 

Potholes dot national highways, except the highway to Zvimba.  Grass and weed varieties are abundant on fertile farmland in a land short of food supplies.

On the eve of the World Press Freedom Day on ZTV’s main news Walter Mzembi said:  “The National Economic Development Priority Programme (NEDPP) is like a prescription for a sick person”.  He went on to explain that NEDPP was the prescription for our “sick economy”.  The economy is truly sick.

NEDPP might work, but the diagnosis could have been wrong, and the programme could well be a case of “old wine in new bottles”.  A wrong “prescription”, followed by old wine would certainly not cure the sick economy from its current maladies.

NEDPP, regime change, Restart, and any other programmes might or might not work. But the most promising of any of the proposed programmes would certainly go a very long way in curing the economy if it would include enabling provisions safeguarding   press freedom.  A free press does wonders to an economy.

Much as the US is not the best of friends to our rulers, and to numerous other citizens of the world, the US press and economy still make a useful case study. 

As far back as 1992, the US communications industry had become the largest private sector employer, and the news media made up the largest segment of that industry.

Daily newspapers alone generated some US$32 billion in advertising revenue annually.  There were more than 11 000 magazine houses operating and the houses produced and circulated more copies than there were Americans to read them.

Every household had at least three radios and more than 95% of the citizens owned televisions, having access to more than a dozen channels. 

Without going as far afield as the States, Zimbabwe could look at fellow African countries such as Uganda, Malawi and South Africa, where in each country there are more than 10 community radio stations yet there is not a single one on Zimbabwe’s airwaves. 

South Africa, whose TV operations are about 15 years younger than those of our local TV, now offers broader variety than the cartoons and farming programmes that are mandatory for Zimbabwean viewers who do not have satellite TV facilities.  The electronic media industry in South Africa has been growing at about 12% for almost 10 years now, obviously to the benefit of their gross domestic product.

Apart from enhancing democratic space and equipping citizens with more extensive information, a free press in Zimbabwe would certainly also be good for the economy.

* Chris Mhike is a Harare-based lawyer with a keen interest in mass communication.

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