In parliament on Tuesday morning, Mugabe sought to paint a picture of partners in the inclusive government working well together. He spoke of the need to build bridges to the West saying the “re-engagement with the European bloc was gathering momentum”.
“Together let us build bridges of amity, forgiveness, trust and togetherness,” he said.
Across the city at St Lucia Park in Marlborough Charamba, who stood in for Media minister Webster Shamu, told editors that the inclusive government was not working.
“I am in the kitchen,” said Charamba. “There is lots of smoke but hardly much cooking going on.”
Charamba, who described editors present as “imperfect shadows of bickering politicians”, and later on as media “fundamentalists”, extinguished all government pretensions to media reform when he threatened with arrest editors of new media titles which want to come onto the market without registration. He acknowledged that there was no authority at the moment to register media outlets but then added chillingly: “If you find yourself on the street without proper registration, you are inviting us to act… and that we will do.”
This would result in the police being sent to close the paper and prosecuting reporters and proprietors.
This kind of thinking must be condemned as it belongs to the old order of repression and crass intolerance. It has nothing to do with government policy as expounded in the Global Political Agreement.
In this vein, it must be argued that the role of the Information ministry should be to facilitate the opening of media space by actively championing the revision and repeal of media laws which have abridged media workers’ ability to operate freely thereby stifling investment in the sector.
We believe that the role of Charamba as a senior official of government should be to advise his minister and government on how to promote media plurality and remove obstacles to media reform by ensuring laws such as Aippa, Posa and the egregiously unconstitutional sections of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act are excised from the statute books.
But in his current form, we wonder what advice Charamba is proffering to government with regards to media reform. Is it to close newspapers, to stifle the coming on stream of new publications or crudely frustrating the reform agenda for political expediency?
In light of his statements this week, we cannot trust Charamba as the accounting officer in the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity to superintend the transformation of media in this country. His were the sort of utterances that relegate Zimbabwe to the league of international bad boys and, with it, a threat to any attempts at international re-engagement.
More strikingly, Charamba appears to have all the answers and excuses on why new players cannot join the fray. There is no licensing authority in place is the common one. On Tuesday he said “had it not been for the freezing interim judgement in the High Court (declaring the old MIC redundant) this programme of more voices would have already started.” How convenient!
So Charamba, in the absence of a licensing authority, sees his ministry taking the enforcer role to ensure new players are killed off. That enforcer role did not appear to apply to Zimpapers — in which government has a controlling stake — publishing a new title in an environment where there is no licensing authority! Charamba’s excuse this time — that H-Metro had an old licence issued by the MIC even if it was not utilised before the six-month expiry period. He again had an excuse for this aberration: Zimpapers took advantage of the absence of the MIC to publish because there is no authority to enforce the law.
This is Charamba’s own interpretation of the law. He wants us to believe that this is the only correct explication. He wants to use his influence to apply this interpretation as an edict from a deity and use the police to enforce it and fight off any contestation. Is this not the stuff that nourishes dictatorships? And what is a senior public servant doing pursuing media policies at variance with declarations made in the GPA, the Kariba conference, the Victoria Falls ministerial retreat, and numerous investment meetings?
A government which wants to be seen to be opening media space does not find excuses at every turn to stifle privately-owned media while allowing pliant titles to circumvent a captive bureaucracy. What is more striking about it all is that the same government playing the role of enforcer is also a media proprietor seeking to expand its space. It is doing this by putting roadblocks in the path of private players.
This cannot be allowed to carry on. This country deserves better leadership and not crocodilian bureaucrats with parochial agendas conducting rear-guard operations against agreed government policy.
We want to hear from partners in the inclusive government whether it is a shared view that government will use strong-arm tactics to close new titles which come on board without licences. We also want to know from President Mugabe if the inclusive government has become an impediment to media freedom or if individual officers are tree stumps on the road to reform? Is this the amity and togetherness we aspire to as a nation?