Friday, 18 November 2011

An urgent call for media freedom in Zimbabwe

An urgent call for media freedom in Zimbabwe.
By Takura Zhangazha.
The Zimbabwean government has an obligation to listen to the concerns of its citizens. In order for it to listen, the people of Zimbabwe must be allowed to speak. And this they do in various ways but the most important platform for speaking truth to power in Zimbabwe remains our media. 

Regrettably in the three years since the formation of the inclusive government, our media has remained under siege by the state via repressive legislation.  And it is this repressive legislation that has led to the generation of an unfortunate culture of impunity against media professionals, where it is a general habit by politicians and others to seek to have journalists arrested.  This is a point that government ministers, particularly the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity will invariably try to deny but it remains an unfortunate and dismaying truth. 

Since the formation of the inclusive government, there has been incremental change to our media landscape. Some elements of this change include the Zimbabwe Media Commission’s (ZMC) licensing a number of private print media players, most of whom have gone on to publish. There has however been no change to the undemocratic practice of criminalizing the media profession via a number of pieces of legislation that protect public officials, the police and national security services from media scrutiny. Further still,  there has been the maintenance of a political culture that wrongly views media freedom as a privilege and not a right. This latter point has been evidenced by the Minster of Media, information and Publicity, Mr. Webster Shamu who used the occasion of World Press Freedom Day in 2011 to wrongly insist that media freedom is a privilege. 

Most recently, there has been the harassment of the Standard Newspaper editor, Nevanji Madanhire and journalist Nqaba Matshazi by the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) on charges that are related to a raft of notorious pieces of legislation that permit our courts of law to consider  not only defamation but freedom of expression  as criminally punishable offenses. The majority of criminal defamation charges have been largely resorted to by persons of influence either by way of politics, business or religion. It is most unfortunate that those that are personally or politically aggrieved by the media may believe that the most effective port of call to seek redress is a police station as opposed to amicable resolution of the grievance in terms of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) Media Code of Conduct. 

Resorting  to the ZRP in order to seek media redress is patently undemocratic and inimical to media freedom and freedom of expression, whichever way one looks at it.  It not only connotes detention for expressing one’s self but also carries with it the fear of what happens in holding cells to those that are deemed to be undermining government or government related authority. This is not to say journalists are above the law, but no one should be imprisoned or physically harassed for expressing an opinion or writing a story that some may consider unfair or inaccurate. There are mechanisms available for redress, such as the VMCZ or the civil courts in addressing issues related to grievances over media stories. 

Where our politicians have retained laws that criminalize freedom of expression, they have been the main actors in the continuation of a culture of arrests that the media profession is now confronted with.  The three parties in the inclusive government, against better advice, decided to amend and not repeal the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in 2008. In doing so they did not remove the clauses that continue to target journalists for criminal charges if they write a ‘false’ story. The same political leaders also retained the Public Order and Security Act together with the notorious and now law of first resort for the police when charging journalists, the  Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. The former has undemocratic clauses that punish anyone, and in particular the media, for undermining the authority of the President and the state security services.  

When members of the inclusive government  or parliament get arrested on charges stemming from these laws, they expect the media to make a lot of noise about the injustice of it all, yet when media professionals insist that these laws are causing the undemocratic harassment, arrest and detention of journalists, the politicians turn a blind eye and start talking about ‘necessary compromises’ or citing similar legislation from other jurisdictions.  In one instance, at a media stakeholders conference called for by the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity in Kariba in 2009, unconfirmed but reliable information indicates that the MDCs and Zanu Pf, together with media stakeholders present, discussed the clauses in POSA that criminalize insulting the President. The end result of that particular debate was that the law must include criminal charges against those that also insult the Prime Minister! 

This limited understanding of the importance of freedom of expression and media freedom by the inclusive government is not only disappointing but has dire consequences for the collective national quest to make our society a democratic one. It also essentially points to the necessity of a new urgency by all media stakeholders in fighting for media freedom and freedom of expression in Zimbabwe.  No single Zimbabwean must express gratitude to the government for licensing more newspapers because the government should not be doing so anyway. Neither must media stakeholders continue to be saddled with the burden of accepting incremental and minimal media reforms simply because the government has asked them to do so. Those that are in power or positions of influence consistently seek to posit that media freedom is a privilege that can be taken at any time, an assumption that is not only wrong but one that violates Section 20 of Zimbabwe’s Constitution.