BY NIGEL NYAMUTUMBU
The Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) board set up in June of last year has since the beginning of March been reaching out to media stakeholders in their diverse mandate to assess the state of the sector in the country and share perspectives on a feasible roadmap.
I had an opportunity to participate in one of these engagement meetings wherein together with the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) vice-chairperson Loughty Dube we interfaced with the ZMC chair Ruby Magosvongwe and commissioner Mirriam Tose Majome.
Dube, who is also the executive director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) used this engagement platform to make submissions on the position of the Alliance with regards to the media sector in Zimbabwe.
Predictably, the conversations led to the ongoing media law reform process, an area which is yet to be fully addressed and one of the factors inhibiting the enjoyment of media and journalistic rights in Zimbabwe.
While some progress has been made with the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, which is yet to be implemented, there are still wide-ranging statutes that are not in sync with constitutional provisions that provide for media freedom, freedom of expression, access to information and the right to privacy.
Usually, when the discussions on media law reforms take center stage, most state actors refer to the repealing of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) as a reflection of government’s commitment to implement reforms and break from the dark past of hostilities between the ruling elite and a critical media.
Aippa was repealed in terms of the Freedom of Information Act, though the components that pertained to media regulation and right to privacy are still in effect.
During the engagement with the ZMC, much of the conversations focused on the repealing of the components that relate to media regulation, more so in the context of the proposed Media Practitioners Bill that is expected to usher in a co-regulatory framework for the media in Zimbabwe.
To put things into perspective, the components of media regulation within Aippa were the most contested since the enactment of this law and to the extent that it was used to clampdown on critical media.
Aippa was not only used as an instrument to entrench statutory regulation of the media, but as a tool to close news media outlets critical of government and to criminalise journalism and by extension free expression.
While the law was amended either through the political negotiations that gave birth to the Government of National Unity (GNU) in 2008 or by judicial pronouncements outlawing criminal defamation for example, statutory regulation was further entrenched by way of the establishment of the ZMC among the Chapter 12 institutions obtained in the constitution.
However, key differences between the regulatory body established in terms of Aippa and the constitution include the broader functions extended to the Commission beyond media regulation in terms of the supreme law and the scope for the Commission to delegate some of the ZMC’s functions.
In any case, the Constitution makes a critical acknowledgement of the existence of a media code of conduct as it compels the enforcement of one, in the event that there is none (refer to Section 249(c) of the constitution).
It is public knowledge that there is an existing code of conduct adopted by media practitioners through the self-regulatory mechanism administered by the VMCZ.
To this end, while the powers to regulate the media are vested within the ZMC, unlike in Aippa, there is scope for the Commission to delegate the function of media regulation by recognising the existence of the self-regulatory code of conduct and supporting the industry’s long standing position to regulate itself.
If anything and as a matter of principle, self-regulation is the most democratic form of media regulation.
This is a principle that the government of Zimbabwe and other African countries conform to by subscribing to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) Declaration of the Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information as adopted at the Commission 65th Ordinary Session in 2019.
However, in the specific case of Zimbabwe, there is no wishing away of a constitutional body in the form of ZMC.
Similarly, there is no wishing away of the principle of self- regulation and the existing mechanism.
There is also the contextual and historical contestations around Aippa that need to be addressed if the media sector is to be genuinely reformed.
In other words, for the ZMC to out rightly use its constitutional powers without acknowledging the existence of the code of conduct and already established self-regulatory mechanism, then we would have not only resorted to Aippa, if not worse but we would sustain the polarisation and the toxic acrimonious relationship between the state and the media.
On the other hand, it is not only a constitutional reality that self-regulation cannot exist in isolation in the context of Zimbabwe but also that there is need to bring actors from the state media to officially be a part of the self-regulatory mechanism in the spirit of upholding high standards of journalism ethics, professionalism and in promoting media accountability.
This is why media stakeholders working together within the MAZ network have been proposing co-regulation as a feasible way forward for the media sector in Zimbabwe.
There has been submissions to the ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services around the Media Practitioners Bill that is expected to define how this co-regulation would work and how this would ensure that the values of democratic regulation of the media are maintained.
The democratic regulation of the media doesn’t only benefit and/or advance media and journalistic freedoms but mainly benefit the citizens who will be empowered to hold the media accountable and will have access to quality news and information that will assist them to make informed decisions.
It is as such in the best interest of the people of Zimbabwe in their diversity to protect and safeguard media freedom as it is a critical avenue for the development of the country.
Zimbabwe cannot afford to sustain the toxic and acrimonious politics that repressive legislation such as Aippa brought about to the country.
Media law reforms must genuinely be implemented and not as a tick in the box exercise.
Repealing Aippa is one thing, dealing with the shadows and intended purposes of the same is definitely another.
Co-regulation is certainly one way of burying this draconian law!
- Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner currently serving as the programmes manager of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or +263 772 501 557. This article first appeared in The Accent newsletter, a MAZ initiative.