Sunday, 9 September 2012

Media Self-Regulation: Staying the democratic media freedom course.

The concept of Media Self-Regulation: Staying the  democratic media freedom course.
A brief presentation to the 2012 Highway Africa Conference, Grahamstown, South Africa,( 09 September 2012)

By Takura Zhangazha

A recurrent question that has begun to emerge in contemporary discourse concerning the media has been ‘how do we regulate the media’?  It is a loaded question primarily because the media (both mainstream and social) has generally become a game changer in global, regional and local politics. And it is a question that is asked more by those with power (political or economic) than it is asked by a majority of our African and global citizens. It is a debate that when further placed within the context of the Southern African and African hegemony, South Africa, becomes somewhat more political than it is based on an organic reflection of how the media should be regulated. This is because the South African state, having become troubled at its elite levels, is seeking to pass on the blame for its challenges to the most immediate of opinion makers on its performance legitimacy.  This being through deliberately but euphemistically seeking to silence the media via direct state regulation and criminalization of journalistic work.

As is the habit with a regional and continental hegemon, its sneeze causes the rest of the continent to catch a serious cold. Being from Zimbabwe,  I can safely say that perhaps we have, contrary to general assertions about our inability to influence international trends, successfully exported our media repression models to our colleagues in the  region. Never mind their glossy constitutions. They have taken an attitude to the media that can only be assumed to have been taken from some of the repressive think-tank’s of Harare

From a Zimbabwean perspective however, it is a debate that we do not have to over-theorize on. We have had a direct experience of state regulation of the media. And it has been a thoroughly repressive one.  Where we have an emerging debate in South Africa concerning state versus self regulation of the media, we can safely attest to the fact that , the state is not only predatory toward the media  but it functions on the false assumption that media freedom and in  the same vein, freedom of expression as well as access to information are privileges that it must give to us out of its own benevolence.  And this now  particularly so where our South African counterparts have begun to debate, formally so, the issue and concept of ‘independent’ co regulation of the media as an alternative to assuage the fears of the predatory state in what is unfortunately an apologetic response to our right to express ourselves. 

While it remains of fundamental importance that  alternative regulatory models be examined, we  must remain guided by the adage, ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’.  And in doing so, we must be cautious of who wants to claims issues as facts and who wants to monitor/control  the comment. This is not in order to relieve the media of any form of public responsibility or lack of blame over and about the way it undertakes to inform our societies of information that is in the public interest. But we must not shift the focus away from democratic principle and value of media freedom as well as media self regulation. We must not negotiate away media freedom or our collective and individual rights to freedom of expression.

This is why perhaps the Zimbabwean example is of significance. The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ)  functions parallel to the state established Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC). This state of affairs is co-regulation by political default. The VMCZ was established by journalists and media organizations  for the ostensible reason of promoting media self regulation against a repressive state. The ZMC was established by a state that has always had a repressive attitude toward the media, let alone a thoroughgoing lack of knowledge as to how the media and media related institutions advance the best democratic interests of the country. The good thing is that the VMCZ has survived and has been steadily increasing public understanding of media public accountability, ethics, professionalism and freedom of expression.

The justification of this unofficial – co-regulatory framework is not preferable but it obtains in Zimbabwe not because of a popular decision but more due to government intransigence on media freedom, freedom of expression and in the final analysis, access to information.

In order to arrive at a way forward concerning the concept of media self regulation, it is imperative that we all understand that the theme of this conference, which is "Africa Rising, How the media frame the continent’s geo-politics, trade and economic growth", is not intended to simultaneously seek to box the media into reporting pre-ordained narratives via state co-control. Similarly, the theme should also not be taken to mean that our media must rise in relation to meeting the increasingly repressive media policy habits of powerful countries in the world.
This would mean that we should not lose ground to the new fears of governments(fears of their own people) both in the north or the south, after the revolutions in North Africa or in the aftermath of Wikileaks.