WHAT a week it was! Thanks to a stormy cabinet meeting last week at which Finance minister Tendai Biti clashed with Zanu PF heavyweights over his motion to investigate Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono for allegedly overstepping his mandate by borrowing more than US$1 billion (US$5,3 billion in total) without approval from treasury.
The row, whose details were published in this newspaper last Friday, triggered all sorts of reactions. It’s a pity we can’t follow-up the story even though we have more revealing details because of officials’ threats of a backlash. We have been gagged.
The feedback to the story ranged from the positive to the hostile and to the malicious. Official thought police and political hacks crept out of the woodwork to issue threats and insults.
However, the feedback provided a useful insight into the current political environment and attitudes towards press freedom. In Zimbabwe the more things change the more they remain the same.
What was significant was that none of those making noise were able to deny the story. They just complained that proceedings of cabinet were secret and classified or that the story either advanced Biti’s or Gono’s agenda – whatever those agendas are!
There were different interpretations of the story – which is normal in a reasonably democratic and diverse society.
Some of the reactions came from Information minister Webster Shamu and political hacks like Denford Magora, a former Mavambo movement publicist. There was also hectic feedback, mostly in private among some of those mentioned in the story. Revealing details of what they said could be misconstrued for a defiant follow-up by hawkish government officials.
For the avoidance of doubt, I must clearly state we welcome feedback, whether positive or negative. We will differ with officials and readers on some issues, but we will defend their right to air their views freely.
At the Independent we have an open door policy. Even those who insult us falsely claiming we get stories from the RBZ’s PR desk and reporters here have been bought houses by Gono are still welcome. We recognise other people’s freedom to lie!
In that connection, we were glad to hear Shamu’s reaction to the story. Via an article headlined “Government warns media”, the minister was quoted as saying newspapers which publish cabinet deliberations without authorisation risk retribution.
He reminded the media in general and the Independent in particular cabinet discussions were confidential.
He said it was an offence in terms of the law to write about cabinet meetings and even went on to claim it was unethical, which obviously is nonsense. There is nothing unethical about it. It’s the legitimacy of the laws in question – the Official Secrets Act and Aippa – that matter.
Politically, the reactions were mind-boggling. While we know what the minister was saying may well be true, what is worrying is draconian statutes used by government to justify Stalinist suppression of public interest information and generalised media repression.Â
All over the world reporting on cabinet meetings is a controversial issue.
Right now there is an interesting debate going on in the UK after Justice Secretary Jack Straw vetoed a ruling under the Freedom of Information Act instructing the government to release the minutes of two key cabinet meetings on March 13 and 17, 2003, when the final decision to go to war against Iraq was discussed.
Is it entirely legitimate to ban any form of reporting on cabinet? Last year in the US there was a report that former vice-president Dick Cheney had slept during a cabinet meeting on wildfires. Was it wrong or not for the media to let people know that?
If ministers fight in cabinet, for instance, would it be in the public interest to report that or not?
Currently Shamu and his colleagues are running around trying to organise a media reform conference. Do his threats augur well for the future of the media? Don’t they signify the conference will be a sham?
Is it good to have a blanket ban on reporting on cabinet proceedings orÂ could there be a way of balancing the public interest and state security considerations without resorting to iron curtain restrictions? These issues must be thoroughly debated, not through threats but open engagement.
Hopefully the media conference will not be a wasteful charade or a cover for media tyranny. However, all those who have seen the programme of the conference have been left astounded. It is packed with high-profile enemies of press freedom.
Parenthetically, on the issue of newspapers borrowing money for newsprint from the Reserve Bank, everybody who is informed knows that Gono has confirmed it in public. The funds were not freebies. They were loans that had to be repaid. Â
Some people claimed our story supported Gono. That’s their view but other readers actually concluded the opposite.
The story we published last week in brief said Biti got the backing of Zanu PF ministers at a ministerial committee meeting to probe Gono for alleged unauthorised borrowings, only for him to be blocked in cabinet. The other story was MPs are saying ministers fighting them over RBZ cars have at least two vehicles each bought by or via the same bank. We don’t know why anybody could find such true stories angering. Let’s not gag the media through unnecessary threats and lies.
BY DUMISANI MULEYA