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Zim still needs to do more to realise press freedom

The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) takes the occasion of commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration to reassert its demands on the government of Zimbabwe to implement constitutional provisions on media freedom in line with the standards set by the global family of nations.

The Windhoek Declaration, a by-product of a United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) conference, resulted in the proclamation of World Press Freedom Day, annually commemorated on May 3.

In observing this day, MAZ takes cognisance of the context in which Zimbabwean journalists and the media are operating in, which assessed in line with the principles outlined in the Windhoek Declaration to demonstrate that there is still more that can be done to realise press freedom in the country.

While there have been notable incremental changes, particularly in breaking the monopoly of the national broadcaster and licensing of community radio stations, there is still need to ensure that the entry of multiple players is underpinned by the need to ensure diversity.

Zimbabwe’s channels of expression are still in the hands of a few and predominantly owned by state actors and the ruling elite, thus the principle of media diversity espoused in the Declaration remaining an aspiration for citizens.

The lack of diversity in ownership has been cause for concern and an area that government should address and ensure the opening up of the broadcasting sector is supported by a transparent licensing process.

The legislative environment doesn’t support a free media, with several laws, among them the Broadcasting Services Act, the Interception of Communication Act, the Criminal Law, Codification and Reform Act among others on the country’s statutes that stifle the enjoyment of press freedom.

While the partial repeal of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) is a progressive step towards breaking with the dark past, the enacted Freedom of Information Act and the Zimbabwe Media Commission Act are yet to be implemented.

The Freedom of Information Act for instance compels public entities to have dedicated personnel to handle information requests and proactively disclose information, something that is yet to be realised.

In addition, the appeals mechanism obtained in the Bill is yet to be fully realised, with citizens that have reported cases of information requests denials having to incur costs to enjoy their right.

On the other hand, the ZMC Act further entrenches statutory regulation of the media in defiance of the principle of self-regulation and recognition of the agreed framework of co-regulation.

The law opens up space for the possibility of journalists to be tried under the Commission of Inquiry Act with chances for journalistic enterprise to be criminalized.

MAZ, however, takes note of the opportunity for the realisation of co-regulation, which could be a mutually acceptable compromise amid consultations on the Media Practitioners Bill, that will usher in a democratic regulatory framework.

The Media Practitioners Bill is still being consulted upon and it is MAZ’s submission that grounding the deliberations on the principles of the Windhoek Declaration will be key in actualising press freedom in the country.

In terms of internet governance, the policy discourses and legislation under review such as the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill fall short of democratic standards of internet governance and there is need to underpin the dialogues in protecting citizens’ right to privacy, free expression and ensure access to internet services by all.

Beyond the legislative environment, MAZ is also cognisant  of the fact that this year’s commemorations take place at a time that the media sector globally is grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and the ramifications thereof on the sustainability of the media.

There has been downsising of the media sector, with some enterprises shutting down.

This has largely resulted in the decline in the quality of media products and the further shrinking of space for the enjoyment of rights to access information and freedom of expression.

Journalists have continued to operate in unsafe environment, characterized by violations on press freedom.

Cases of violations against the media and journalists have worrying been increasing.

There have been response mechanisms, including engagements with law enforcement agencies that are however yet to create a safe working environment for journalists.

MAZ, therefore, calls upon for urgent interventions across the policy, law and practice to safeguard press freedom in Zimbabwe.

As this year’s commemorations theme highlight, “Information as a Public Good”, MAZ submits that the media belongs with the people and ensuring a safe and sustainable operating environment for the media is an anchor to democracy and development.

MAZ

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