THE contretemps last weekend in which MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was taken to task by permanent secretary in the Media ministry George Charamba for seeking to address members of the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) is illustrative of the problems the commission faces in the fulfilment of its duties.
The announcement on Wednesday that licences will be issued to a number of publishing houses, including this one, doesn’t really change the character of those problems.
As a constitutional body the ZMC needs to be seen as independent of executive authority. But that doesn’t mean the prime minister can’t arrange a hearing with the members to get his views across. He was quite right to express concerns that members are running to the permanent secretary all the time for guidance instead of identifying what they need to do in the way of licensing and legislative reforms.
Indeed, the commission should have a long list of measures that need urgent attention beyond the licensing issue.
It is now a year since representatives of the media and government met at Kariba where it was unambiguously agreed that Aippa should go. Why a year later has there been no attempt to remove that notorious anti-press law?
Then there is the more recent measure, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which currently serves as the state’s weapon of choice in its war with the private media.
MDC-M leader Professor Arthur Mutambara was in 2008 charged under that law together with the editor and publisher of the Standard for “undermining the authority of the president” or “engendering feelings of hostility” towards him deriving from an article Mutambara wrote.
The defamation clauses in the Act pose a constant threat to newspapers fulfilling their role as public watchdogs.
The Standard was an early victim of state assaults on press freedom. In 1999 the editor and chief reporter of the paper were abducted and tortured following publication of an article on Zimbabwean forces in the DRC.
Key clauses in the colonial-era Law and Order (Maintenance) Act under which they were charged were struck down by the courts but a court-ordered investigation of the abduction and torture of the two journalists got no further than the gates of the KGV1 barracks.
The president denounced the publishers and the judges who had tried to uphold due process.
Partly as a result of this episode the state in 2002 devised Aippa to deal with a recalcitrant press. At the same time the judiciary was purged of independent-minded judges.
The following year saw the closure of the Daily News followed by other publications under its overweening registration clauses.
This repressive media architecture remains firmly in place despite the formation of a government of national unity.
And the constant attacks upon the prime minister and his party expose the insincerity of the former ruling party which continues to use the press as an instrument of propaganda and control.
It is intolerable that the press should be used to malign the reputations of parties to a court case with impunity as we have seen in the Bennett case.
The ZMC and other independent bodies such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the Human Rights Commission need to avoid any impression that they get their marching orders from officials in government.
A situation in which a permanent secretary lectures a minister or prime minister in public is wholly inappropriate and paints a poor picture of the GNU. So does the refusal of ministers and officials to attend meetings with the prime minister.
As it stands, the Zimbabwe delegation to the Brussels re-engagement meeting has little to offer in the way of reforms. It is to be hoped that the new publications announced this week will provide a sense of balance after the abuse of recent years where we have witnessed government officials masquerading as journalists.
That would be a start. But there is a mountain of work to do if we are to claim the values of a democratic society.