In my more than two decades in academia and as a politician, I have heard again and again the often repeated assertion that the bond of any professional and ethical media practitioner is the maxim, “Facts are sacrosanct and opinion is free”, and with equal measure I have heard it repeated by rogue states and politicians that, “You are free to express yourself, but you cannot be guaranteed your freedom after expression”. In Zimbabwe during the same period, many newspapers have been closed as journalists were jailed or exiled due to excessive State-instigated force. Again in the same period, many laws, regulations and policy positions meant to restrict the freedom of media and expression were passed, gazetted and promulgated by the ruling party, Zanu PF.
BY WELSHMAN NCUBE
It is not an exaggeration — actually, there is empirical evidence that Zimbabweans selectively write and say political opinion for public consumption. There is a great deal more dialogue in the public domain about British and Spanish soccer than there is on poverty, political oppression and rural famine. Just like during the reign of terror in Malawi perpetrated by Kamuzu Banda’s “young pioneers”, Zimbabweans speak in hushed tones and whispers when politics and economics head towards the wrong direction. Before we criticise our leaders, we look over our shoulders with anxious suspicion and hope that what we say will not get to the ears of vindictive state machinery.
I suppose this is why in legal circles it is sometimes said that the law is as good as those that interpret it. Let me explain. Dating back to the Lancaster House constitution, up to the current supreme law, there has been many clauses insinuating how free our media is and why citizens should freely express themselves. I have heard politicians from the other political divide brag that Zimbabwe has a free media because there are “independent newspapers allowed to operate”. True enough, we cannot be compared to North Korea, Saudi Arabia or Cuba, but that does not mean we are free to express ourselves. In order to establish a newspaper or radio station, one overcomes a labyrinth of bureaucratic obstacles. People like Tafataona Mahoso are strategically placed as gatekeepers to media freedom. Of late, we have had the First Lady Grace Mugabe wagging a threatening finger at journalists while President Robert Mugabe’s own spokesperson, George Charamba thinks we express ourselves as an act of divine benevolence from his boss, even if it is our constitutional right to do so. The president himself has issued a chilling threat to the independent media, “…You are thinking how can you excite people who read so that they buy your paper. No. The journalism we are experiencing is not the journalism we expect. If we take control now, rigid control, people should not cry foul.” The point he seems to completely miss is that the role of the media is not to do public relations work for Zanu PF or any politician, but to report on the facts.
If you look closely at the global pattern of industrialisation, you will notice that most countries (except China) that have a higher degree of free expression are wealthier. The vibrancy of Kenyan, Nigerian and South African democracy is partly to do with media freedom. Government is made accountable, questioned and routinely challenged while political leaders are kept under public scrutiny. In Zimbabwe, we rely on foreign media to hear alternative opinion because it is almost impossible to register a local television station. Those like Mutumwa Mawere and James Makamba who tried, were ruthlessly suppressed.
Yet our government will always claim that it encourages free but responsible media behaviour. The argument around media regulation — self or State-supervised — revolves around the aspect of “responsible” expression. The law itself has two sections that talk about expression. Section 61 gives citizens ultimate freedom of expression and freedom of media, but reminds us of how government should “control” licensing and how certain types of free expression are outlawed. Here, it is not so much that I worry about why there are exceptions, but my problem is that of selective application of the law. ZBC is a public institution financed by everyone who pays taxes and buys licences, but when it comes to Zanu PF business, this institution puts itself at the disposal of the party cronies. ZBC spends most of its time denigrating and calling us puppets of the West. They use their monopoly to portray us as directionless, foreign-funded parties. We are not even afforded the right to respond. This is very irresponsible, actually criminal.
I will be the first to accept that in a civilisation, there are things that are reasonable not to say e.g. matters of traditional taboo, blasphemy and hatred. Thus, when I talk of responsible freedom of expression, in mind comes things that endanger other people’s lives when said. Some things destroy marriages, companies and self-confidence.
At MDC, we make serious commitments to free expression. We have a problem with monopolisation of airwaves and the public media by a small section of the population, which is directly traced to the absence of a devolved system of government. Because of this, the history of the media in Zimbabwe is one of statutory control, repression, restrictive legislation and executive overregulation — partisan pandering generally reflective of state paranoia, limited political space and a deep-seated aversion for unfettered press freedom and genuine participatory democracy. Evidence is that our media serves the interests and puts across the views and strengthens the political and economic privileges of the elite, the government of the day and politically connected. Newsrooms of public broadcast studios are manned and dominated by journalists whose worldview invariably mirrors those of the State and owners.
Over the years, meaningful growth and development of the media sector has been slow, with limited diversity and high entry barriers owing both to adverse political and economic conditions. An environment of stringent bureaucratic requirements has ensured limited competition to state broadcaster — Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, frustrating the possibility of effective media competition and negatively affecting the quality of media products and services. The resultant quality of journalism has seen a disturbing loss and decline of public confidence in the media. The violent clampdown by the State in the run up to the 2000, 2005, 2008 and 2013 elections, routine arrests, imprisonment and harassment of journalists and the shutdown of media houses deemed to support opposition political ideology, irreparably damages the reputation of the media sector. It is against such an adverse backdrop that the MDC government considers a strategy for wholesale national media transformation to be an absolute necessity and to be the epicentre of national participatory governance and democratic change. As a major pillar of governance, the media is not yet adequately structured to effectively promote, support and force public institutions to demonstrate diversity, equality, fairness, public accountability, equity and transparency, which are the party’s fundamental values to drive the realisation of human rights.
If voted into power, the MDC government will utilise devolution principles to re-introduce freedom of information to facilitate free flow of information through responsible and accountable community-based journalism. We insist that rights of all citizens to free expression be guaranteed and protected by the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The MDC upholds the value of media regulation as far as it governs ethics, promotes professional conduct and protects the reasonable right of individuals to privacy, but it is the role of the media to implement this function. Our government will encourage research and development in order to facilitate media competition in an open media market. Media must be effectively deregulated, free and disencumbered of undue censorship, interference and control by the Executive arm of the government.
The ultimate value of public accountability, the pursuit of transparent governance and the pulse of the conscience of the State effectively abode with a robust private and public media. Expanded media circulation ensures that all forms of media are accessible and affordable to all sections of society, in particular rural communities’ access and their active participation. The MDC will secure individual liberties and progressively expand the democratic space through provisions for a robust, free and diverse private and public media. We commit ourselves to improve quality of media products and services accessed by citizens through effective investment in media and Information and Communications Technology infrastructure development, accelerated cyberspace connectivity and increased private sector investment and competition. My party will secure sustainable media balance, fair practice privacy rights and best practice media ethics benchmarks through a constitutionalised, independent, professional and non-partisan reformed Zimbabwe Communications and Media Commission. We will push for effective decentralisation and de-urbanisation of the media so as to increase the media reach to all and particularly rural communities and improve the participation of all sections of that society in a free media space.
It is critical to encourage adherence to global standards of good governance and media that best provide a benchmark for our media policy and practice. We realise how media is a function of an entrenched national culture of effective communication and documentation based on systemic and continuous generation, management and dissemination of quality information within and among institutions across all sectors of society. My government will encourage expanded media circulation to ensure that all forms of media are accessible and affordable to all sections of society in particular rural communities’ access and participation.