“ANY report is good unless it is an obituary,” Mark Twain is said to have remarked of the popular press.
Aleksandr Lebedev, a friendly Russian oligarch, was happy to quote the aphorism as he explained to an RT interviewer his thoughts on acquiring a 75% stake in the London Evening Standard. His New Media Holdings already owns 49%, with Mikhail Gorbachev, in a Russian publication, Novy Gazeta.
An articulate and charming entrepreneur, Lebedev was anxious to advertise his credentials as a hands-off publisher —— a rare animal!
But he was obviously thrilled with his new acquisition which critics have branded a trophy haul. Lebedev is an anglophile of the first order and joins a small tribe of Russian oligarchs operating out of the British capital. He believes passionately in the free contestation of ideas.
“Try living in a society without a free press,” he remarked, without directly referring to Russia’s fate where investigative journalists have been assassinated in recent years.
I wonder what Lebedev would make of things here. Zimbabwe’s media has been under a state of siege since 2000.
We have witnessed nine years in which journalists have been arrested, arbitrarily incarcerated, and hauled before the courts for expressing views unpalatable to a repressive regime.
Many more have lost their jobs.
A precursor to these events was the abduction and torture of the editor and chief reporter of the Standard in 1999 over a report on the war in the DRC. Subsequently the offices and printing press of the Daily News were bombed and the perpetrators mysteriously not apprehended.
While the state’s weapon of choice in its war with the independent media, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) has proved a cruel disappointment to its architects as charges flopped in the courts, this has not stopped them using other cudgels such as the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which has seen a number of prosecutions under its sinister rubric.
At the same time Aippa has provided a regulatory regime that has set up a costly and hostile agency, the Media and Information Commission, to accredit journalists and register their media houses. It has also been used notoriously to close newspapers down.Nowhere has there been access to information except what the state deems fit to disclose.
At the beginning of last year Zanu PF agreed with the MDC on amendments to Aippa that served no useful purpose except to alert the media to the danger of an opposition party that was clearly ignorant of the functions of a free press and quite happy to do deals on press regulation without consulting those affected. It must not happen again.
What we need is a robust and independent media, free of the depredations of a post-liberation aristocracy that resents an outspoken press for exposing its extractive career. The MIC and other facets of the state’s malevolent media agenda need to be abolished in their entirety.
They have no place in a democratic society. What we need is a professional public media that represents the diversity of Zimbabwean society so issues are discussed in a mature and non-partisan way.
At present the so-called public media is being abused by the ruling party to excuse the inexcusable and insult the very people whose input is needed if the government of national unity is to succeed.
A coalition of media organisations under the banner of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe are currently drawing up a roadmap so parliament and other representative sectors of society can see what an ideal media landscape should look like.
It needs to command the widest possible support by a people yearning to be free of the arthritic grip that a baleful regime has exercised over their lives.
The Zimbabwe Independent and Standard have worked hard through these dark years to keep the banner of press freedom aloft and paid a heavy price for championing democratic values.
We continue to stand for those values. Freedom of expression is our lifeblood. Further, we want to see the return of the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a people not afraid to speak their minds on the issues of the day.
That won’t happen overnight. But as our new parliament convenes with a democratic majority, the prospects haven’t looked better for a long time.
We need to welcome back all those journalists expelled, some despite court orders upholding their right to residence, so events in Zimbabwe are fully covered from a number of perspectives. There must be no dark corners where the media spotlight can’t reach.
And people like Aleksandr Lebedev will perhaps feel free to invest in our media should he wish to do so. That way new skills are imparted and new ideas disseminated.
But first we must see the immediate release of political prisoners currently held in reportedly appalling conditions redolent of the Stalinist era.
It should be a matter of profound concern to Zimbabweans and the international community alike that transparently decent people like Jestina Mukoko continue to be held in the state’s gulag.
The new Zimbabwe needs to put its best foot forward over the next few months breathing in the healthy air of a free society, not the toxic waste of Zanu PF’s disastrous reign.Â
It is time for change and the independent press needs to redouble its efforts in championing democratic reform —— and blow the whistle if the new government falls short in this regard.
Above all we should make a nuisance of ourselves when dealing with the new breed of high-and-mighty rulers. Some prospective ministers have recently been eyeing out their new premises and their perks, we gather!
Newspapers that act as apologists for those in power perform no useful function whatsoever. On the contrary they are a danger to themselves and society.
We promise to be a thorough nuisance in the months ahead, exercising vigilance where it is most needed. Do join us! Â