The conference, facilitated by the Media, Information and Publicity ministry, was boycotted by most private media players and civil society who viewed it as a mere talk shop. It was inappropriate, they felt, to hold such a meeting when journalists such as Shadreck Manyere were incarcerated facing trumped up charges.
They were also concerned by some of the panellists who over the past decade have been at the forefront of not only muzzling the media, but also closing newspapers altogether.
From several media reform proposals agreed to at the conference, only one has so far been implemented — the establishment of the Zimbabwe Media Commission — but with no benefit yet to the media.
But the time spent getting to this point is inexcusable given that the unity government formed last February under the global political agreement (GPA) was explicitly mandated to ensure the “immediate processing by the appropriate authorities of all applicants for re-registration and registration in terms of both the Broadcasting Services Act as well as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act”.
The GPA furthers states that: “In recognition of the open media environment anticipated by this agreement, the parties (Zanu PF and MDC formations) hereby … encourage the Zimbabweans running or working for external radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe to return to Zimbabwe, and that steps be taken to ensure that the public media provides balanced and fair coverage to all political parties for their legitimate political activities.”
No one knows when this will happen though the government claims to be yearning for investment to revive the comatose economy and at the same time creating employment.
The media environment under the inclusive government is not yet conducive for exiled journalists to return home and carry on with their business. The Media ministry has refused to guarantee their safety. The Zimbabwe National Editors Forum has written to the ministry on the subject of returning exiles and up to now there has been no response.
Nothing significant has been done to repeal the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and replace it with two vital proposed laws — the Freedom of Information Act to regulate access to information and privacy and the Media Practitioners Act to outline procedures for registration of journalists, which should be as simple and informal as possible, and provide for issues of discipline which must be handled by self-regulating bodies and not the self-interested state.
Another resolution at the Kariba conference which is far from being implemented is that access to the media industry in broadcasting should be open to “foreign investors to the extent of 49% maximum, and no discretion should be allowed to the Media minister to vary this percentage”, as in the Broadcasting Services Act.
The airwaves remain closed and ZBC continues to enjoy a monopoly to the detriment of would-be private broadcasters and in defiance of a Supreme Court order 10 years ago. It was agreed at the conference that the national broadcaster must become a statutory body again instead of being incorporated as a private company controlled by the ministry. It was also agreed that the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust should be reinstated to manage Zimpapers and Ziana as public entities, not purveyors of Zanu PF propaganda.
These reforms remain unimplemented and there is no evidence that they will be embarked on any time soon.
What is disturbing is that the two MDC formations who are partners in the inclusive government have failed dismally to initiate or push for media reforms. Before going into the shaky government the parties had spoken out loudly about media freedom, but seem now to have been consumed by the trappings of power and are behaving like their Zanu PF colleagues.
Jameson Timba, Deputy Media, Information and Publicity minister, recently told the MDC-T’s newsletter, Changing Times, that prospects of a free media in the near future remain a mirage because of laws like Aippa and the draconian Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
The minister was candid that this state of affairs was forcing people to be proactive and publishing newsletters and other unofficial media.
The diehards have been beneficiaries of a skewed media environment and they will fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo, especially now that we are likely to go to the polls next year. Freedom of the press is a threat to Zanu PF diehards who want to use the public media to disseminate their pernicious propaganda. There is need for all progressive forces to compel the inclusive government to embark on media reforms to enhance democracy and level the political playing field ahead of the elections. Without a free press, there won’t be a free election.