By Nigel Nyamutumbu
The Zimbabwean government has a terrible record of failing to implement and/or fulfil verbal commitments.
If anything, the government is well-known for turning left when the policy-makers would have indicated right.
This has resulted in a complete trust breakdown between government and the citizens it purports to represent.
Since assuming office in November 2017, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has invested a lot of time and resources to try and rebuild trust and confidence that citizens and indeed the international community had long lost in the Zimbabwean government.
As part of this trust building exercise, the government initiated a number of interventions aimed at changing perceptions and to be seen as starting on a new page.
For good measure, government termed this the “new dispensation” that would be characterised by reforms, reengagement and renewal.
Among the raft of measures that government undertook were the reengagement efforts with the West, initiation of political dialogue and perhaps more importantly reform of undemocratic laws.
Some of the laws, such as the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) replicated the pre-colonial and racists regulations that were meant to stifle organised resistance and demonstrations against repressive rule.
Other laws, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) were introduced in response to growing dissent against the government, which was threatening the ruling party’s hold onto power and were often used as weapons to criminalise free expression.
The media, which is the lifeblood of any democratic society, was targeted.
Aippa and other laws were used to shut down critical media and to retain government control of information dissemination.
Public media outlets effectively became mouthpieces of the ruling party and often used to spew hate against the opposition and any perceived opponent of the state.
Channels of free expression in Zimbabwe remain dominated by the state or actors directly or indirectly related to the ruling party.
As such, the overtures by government to embark on a consultative process to reform Aippa and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) were largely welcome.
Although the process could have been handled more transparently, it was a welcome development that government sought for stakeholders input into this law making process and it was noble that non-state actors were invited to take part in the actual drafting process of the laws that would come out of this reform exercise.
All these engagements were premised on mutual trust and shared principles of not only aligning the laws with the constitution, but ensuring that these laws develop the sector.
The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), a coalition of nine media professional and support organisations media policy framework and minimum standards for the Zimbabwean media provided a useful benchmark on which the government could develop democratic media laws.
MAZ argued that the new media laws should ensure that the country’s media, particularly the broadcasting sector must be opened up to genuinely independent and community based initiatives.
Within the same vein, all state-controlled media should be transformed to public service media in line with the constitution and democratic practice.
In addition, the country’s internet regulatory framework and digital security laws must be democratic and allow for citizens to enjoy rights to communication, access to information and free expression in a secure environment both on and offline.
MAZ argued that the new laws should set the framework for government to address the sustainability challenges that the Zimbabwean media is currently experiencing and that this could be through the establishment of a media development fund and review of the multiple tax regime.
In order to attain gender equality, MAZ submitted that media laws should make it mandatory for media organisations to enact and implement gender sensitive policies that ensure a safe working environment for male and female journalists and effectively ensure women representation and empowerment through the media.
It is also important for the laws to ensure that the safety of journalists must be guaranteed and respected by both state and non state actors.
Despite these submissions and engagements, government surprisingly published a law that does not meet the principles of a democratic access to information law and neither does the published Bill meet the criteria submitted by MAZ and other stakeholders.
The Freedom of Information Bill gazetted on July 5, 2019 is shockingly different from the draft Bill that media stakeholders contributed to and if enacted into law would be a regression.
There is evident attempt to sneak in provisions of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), which inhibits citizens from enjoying the constitutionally guaranteed rights.
The Bill in its current state will deprive citizens of critical information around government borrowing and to that extent spending.
One wonders why the government would motivate for a provision that actually stifles citizens’ right to know where and how government has borrowed and for what purpose?
The Bill has provisions that discriminate against those that are unable to write, persons with disabilities among other key sects of the population by insisting that requests have to be written.
The Africa Commission on Human and People’s Rights provides and indeed our Constitution provides a democratic framework on handling complaints.
Just like Aippa before it, the law further conflates the Zimbabwe Commission’s role of media regulation and enforcing access to information, a role that media stakeholders have over the years argued that it be separated.
The initially published Bill gives that role to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and that could surely be a way to ensure that both state and non-state actors can be held accountable.
It is clear from analysing the Bill that mechanisms for proactive disclosure need to be strengthened and extended to private bodies that also hold critical information.
Non-disclosure provisions and timelines ought to be guided by democratic principles and urgently require review.
In short, the Freedom of Information Bill in its current form cannot pass as a democratic access to information law.
The publication of a Bill that ignores the input from media stakeholders and fails to meet citizens’ expectations suggest that government is using the media law reform process as a window dressing exercise to merely depict a picture to the outside world that there are reforms taking place in Zimbabwe.
It will be a sad development if Parliament and the people of Zimbabwe accept laws that will reinforce undemocratic practices in the name of reengaging with the international community.
The government must be sincere in this reform process and implement democratic media laws beyond the drive to reengage the international community but for the development of the country into posterity.
Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner currently serving as the programmes manager for the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on +263772501557 or firstname.lastname@example.org . This article was first published in The Accent, an initiative of MAZ and its partners