ZANU PF ministers in the unity government can be forgiven for feeling confused nowadays. Some are still wedded to the postures of yesteryear where the rule was “deny, deny and deny”.
But that is no longer tenable when they may find themselves contradicted by more enlightened colleagues. Zimbabwe’s Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa last week dismissed as “false” an SABC documentary which aired shocking footage exposing how prisons in Zimbabwe have become death camps for thousands of inmates who are deprived of food and medical care.
The documentary, shown last Tuesday night on South Africa’s state broadcaster SABC3, and repeated this week, documented the “living hell” for prisoners at Beitbridge, Khami and Chikurubi Maximum Security prisons.
In an interview with Radio VOP last Wednesday, Chinamasa said the documentary, which shocked viewers with its horrifying pictures of gravely ill inmates, had been fabricated by the SABC team.
“What was shown by the SABC3 is not true,” said Chinamasa. “The SABC is lying. We do not allow cameras into our prisons. We have made investigations and found out that the footage is not from Zimbabwe but other countries,” he said.
Our thanks to Radio VOP for that excerpt.
But then on Monday morning he was singing a different tune. Ministers in the so-called rights cluster had made a commitment at Victoria Falls to addressing the plight of prisoners, he told journalists.
“We have agreed to meet the basic needs of all prisoners in terms of food, clothing, bedding and health in the next 30 days.”
So what spurred this sudden bout of activity? The SABC documentary of course. And Beitbridge, we can safely say, is in Zimbabwe.
It was good to have Chinamasa’s commitment to reform. But we were quickly reminded that elements of the ancien regime are still with us. A report in the Standard said three prison officers had been arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act with facilitating the SABC documentary.
The Official Secrets Act, needless to say, is one of many colonial laws on our statute books begging for reform. And the fact that the government hastened to exercise damage limitation suggests SABC performed a public service in exposing conditions in Zimbabwe’s jails.
So let’s have less denials and more action.
The same applies to media reform. Chinamasa said reform was necessary to “create a political climate where divergent voices will be heard”.
So we have finally got to that part of the global accord that deals with freedom of the press, two months after the formation of the unity government. What took them this long?
The answer is simple. The hard-line gang that still gravitates around President Mugabe has been blocking progress, just as it has in other matters. A conference to which Media minister Webster Shamu had given his approval was cancelled at the last minute following intervention by a Mugabe mandarin.
Instead of exposing this bad behaviour, MDC ministers kept quiet. Now we hear Morgan Tsvangirai claiming there has been progress on media reform.
He can obviously see in the dark! The media community would like to know what progress he thinks government has made since the media conference that would have set the agenda for reform was cancelled.
Let’s be clear on this. There must be no more back-room deals of the sort that led to amendments to Aippa and Posa at the beginning of last year. Those changes proved worthless.
There must be comprehensiveÂ reforms that liberate the public media from the clutches of Zanu PF and establish it on a professional basis where reporting is fair and balanced, as required by the September accord. Above all the public media, as Chinamasa pointed out, must provide a forum for divergent voices.
That is clearly not happening as the ruling party maintains its arthritic grip on both its newspaper empire and a next-to-useless broadcaster where land-grab beneficiaries moonlight as journalists.
The government needs to demonstrate its commitment to reform of the media by welcoming home Zimbabwean journalists from the diaspora and foreign correspondents booted out over the past 10 years, one in violation of a court ruling. That is a democratic deficit that has been outstanding for far too long.
It has been 10 years since the Supreme Court struck down ZBC’s monopoly of the airwaves yet not a single applicant has succeeded in occupying that space, thus forcing many of our media workers to operate from abroad. We need to open the door to all those who think they could run a better service than ZBC – which shouldn’t be terribly difficult.
The Zimbabwe Independent drew attention recently to the fact that the Media and Information Commission no longer had a legal mandate. The amended constitution makes provision for a Zimbabwe Media Commission but it will only begin work after parliament’s standing rules and orders committee has submitted a list of names to President Mugabe. He will in turn need to consult and agree with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai before appointing the commission.
Despite these clear provisions, Muckraker is reliably informed that 10 Norwegian journalists accompanying Development minister Erik Solheim were each made to pay US$1 500 to cover the minister’s recent visit to Zimbabwe. We would welcome a clarification on this. What is the Norwegian for “daylight robbery”? Come to think of it, they don’t have much daylight up there at this time of year!
Muckraker was amused by the Herald’s headline story on Tuesday: “SA business leaders jet in”.
In fact they had jetted out the same day. Zimbabwe and South Africa are due to sign a Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (Bippa) on April 14. Welshman Ncube was quoted in the local press this week as saying Bippas would not protect farms from acquisition.
That must have gone down well. SoÂ must the Herald’s headline on Wednesday. “Six farmers arrested.” And what was their heinous offence? Continuing to feed the nation in the teeth if violent resistance from land-grabbing politicians and officials using hired gangs.
Morgan Tsvangirai’s word is evidently not his command!