ZIMBABWE’S inclusive government should make far-reaching media reforms soon to inspire confidence in and outside the country, analysts have said.
Media pressure groups have called for more plurality and diversity in the media and an end to laws that impede the free practice of journalism.
Delays by the new administration to free the airwaves and grant licences to new players undermine the democratic ideals captured in the September 15 2008 Global Political Agreement that resulted in the formation of the inclusive government between President Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara.
“We want an immediate repeal of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa),” Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) president Mathew Takaona said.
“Aippa should be replaced by a Freedom of Information Act which makes information accessible to everyone. We also need to bring down monopolies in the media because they are dangerous. They perpetuate corruption, social ills, patronage and create false realities.”
Takaona said government had promised to take on board recommendations made by media practitioners at the Kariba media conference in April.
“Self-regulation of the media is also imperative. The media cannot be regulated by the state which is an interested party because there is a conflict of interest,” said the ZUJ president.
The government has remained adamant that statutory regulation will be enforced.
George Charamba, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity, is reportedly drafting media regulations for the industry which will soon be tabled in parliament.
These focus on freedom of information and media practitioners, outlining procedures for the regulation of journalists.
MDC-T legislator Settlement Chikwinya said he was “disturbed” by the slow pace of the inclusive government in repealing or amending repressive laws affecting the day-to-day life of journalists.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe Chapter has also criticised steps taken so far by the five-month old inclusive government towards media reform.
The National Governing Council of Misa said last week that the “failure by the inclusive government to urgently allow more private newspapers and alternative radio or television stations to operate in the country severely limits the citizen’s rights to access to information and diversity of views”.
Apart from Aippa, which has become synonymous with media repression, media experts argue that a cocktail of laws continue to curtail media freedom.
The country’s supreme law guarantees freedom of expression but there is no express guarantee of media freedom. Given the key democratic function served by the media, a specific guarantee of press freedom would be expected.
Constitutional law expert Prof Geoff Feltoe cites a plethora of laws that inhibit press freedom. The Civil Defamation law, according to Feltoe, does not draw a “reasonable balance” between protection of reputation and freedom of the press.
“When a paper publishes information believing on reasonable grounds that it is true, it is still in danger of having to pay large amounts of money in damages if the information turns out to be inaccurate,” he argues.
“We should adopt the position in South Africa, where it is a defence to a defamation action that the paper took reasonable steps to check the information it publishes in the public interest.”
This defence applies even if the information turns out to be untrue, Feltoe said.
“The position for newspapers would be eased if there was more ready access to information held by government agencies,” he said. “The highly restrictive official secrets legislation needs to be completely overhauled. The access to information provisions in Aippa are so qualified and hedged about that they do little to open up access to government information. We need real freedom of information legislation along the lines of legislation in South Africa.”
Citing the shortcomings of the Criminal Defamation law, Feltoe further argues that the law can be used as a “weapon to deter legitimate criticism” of people in high office.
Any sector of the media can find itself a target of this offence. A few months ago the editor and a reporter on the Chronicle newspaper were charged with this offence for publishing an article alleging that senior police officers were involved in a GMB maize scam. They were charged with making a false statement prejudicial to state interests.
Journalists still risk facing a one-year sentence for making statements about the president that could be viewed as false or engendering feelings of hostility or cause him to be ridiculed or held in contempt.
Media experts argue that this offence may be appropriate to protect the dignity of a ceremonial president but an executive president like Mugabe who is actively involved in political activities should not be above criticism.
Last week’s utterances by top officials in the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity that the yet to be constituted Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) would merely be a replica of the now defunct Media and Information Commission, signals the turbulent path that lies ahead for the media reform agenda.
Challenging an interim High Court ruling protecting four freelance journalists who challenged sections of the controversial Aippa, Minister Webster Shamu and his permanent secretary George Charamba filed court papers last week defending the law.
They argued that the MIC would be reincarnated as a new constitutional commission. The Tafataona Mahoso-led MIC was dissolved by Constitutional Amendment No 18 in January last year.
“There was otherwise no change in the status of the commission as a legal entity possessed with full corporate powers,” Shamu averred in his court papers.
Indicating a void that could result after the formation of the ZMC, Shamu said “there was nothing in the Aippa amendment (No 18) that suggests that a new successor body was created under the amendment, or that there was any intention by the legislature to affect the rights and obligations created by or under or otherwise acquired in terms of the principal Act…Consequently there exists a situation at present where two commissions exist in parallel under separate legislative provisions, with the constitutional commission still in limbo because of the absence of a legislative and operational framework which is to be provided under an Act of Parliament still to be enacted.”
The MDC-T however has lambasted this notion.
“A donkey does not become a cow by simply being renamed. These enemies of press freedom are either genuinely naÃ¯ve or are being mischievous by trying to impose the old MIC secretariat on the ZMC,” said MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa. “The likes of Tafataona MahosoÂ and other media hangmen who have left a legacy of five banned newspapers, bombed radio and television stations must never be allowed to be part of the board,” he said.
Clerk of Parliament Austin Zvoma told a press conference last month that former commissioners were still eligible to fill posts arising in the ZMC.
Remarks by Charamba that he would investigate the publication of a newsletter being run by Morgan Tsvangirai’s office could be a bid by the old guard to block reforms.
The growing suspicion between the prime minister and the permanent secretary demonstrates the mistrust, political plotting and moves being made by parties in the inclusive government ahead of an anticipated poll. In the midst of this war of attrition, the fate of media freedom in this country will be determined.
BY BERNARD MPOFU