Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Zimbabwean Media, Elections and Democracy

A brief presentation to the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) Discussion Forum by Takura Zhangazha (Executive Director, Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe)
Wednesday 24 April 2013, Trust Towers, Harare, Zimbabwe.

Let me begin by thanking the editorial staff of the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) Group for inviting the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe to this pertinent discussion on Media, Elections and Democracy in Zimbabwe. It is important from the outset to highlight the democratic value of elections and electoral processes to democratic societies. Elections can broadly be referred to as the  sum total of processes that lead to the establishment of what has been referred to in American history and political parlance as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’ (shall not perish from this earth). 

This is also a phrase that was cited by one of Zimbabwean politics’ most recognized historians Terrence Ranger as having been used in our own Zimbabwean liberation history. In his recently published memoir, ‘Writing Revolt, Anengagement with African Nationalism 1957-67’ Ranger cites one of our liberation struggle leaders (name supplied) using this line in the early 1960s when addressing rallies in the then Highfields township (much to the delight of the hundreds of people present at the same).

In fast forwarding to our contemporary political context, elections have however not be seen or referred to popularly as resulting in us having ‘government of the people, for the people and  by the people’.  The disputed and controversial elections that have occurred since 2000 in Zimbabwe have not necessarily reflected the unfettered will, even by majority dictate,of the citizens of our country.  

And the reasons for this are many and well documented in various electoral reports by observers and election related organizations. However it must be emphasized that one of the key reasons has been the deliberate stifling of the media, access to information and broader freedom of expression by the state.  And this is where the topic I have been asked to discuss jointly with other panelists becomes relevant.

The culture and practice of impunity and criminalization of the media and freedom of expression by the Zimbabwean state has contributed significantly to how elections have not necessarily reflected the democratic will of the people.  This is a point however that is made not in order to assume that the media must only have freedom to operate during elections in order to accentuate access to information of the citizenry around electoral processes. 

 Because elections are as I have indicated in my introduction are the sum total of the processes that lead to government of the people, by the people and for the people, they are not only time based democratic processes. They are in fact processes that reflect more the democratic culture and people centered stability of a country over the long term.

So in discussing the media, democracy and elections there is need for us to understand that these three issues transcend the harmonized elections we are expecting some time this year. These are issues that in effect reflect the fundamental values and principles of our society and that must always be considered for posterity and not as is the current case in Zimbabwean society, for incremental or elitist gain.

I say this latter point because in the lifetime of the inclusive government, there has been largely token appreciation of the democratic value and importance of the media, access to information and freedom of expression.  This tokenism has found expression through the incremental and ‘gatekeeping’ approach to media reforms that have been undertaken by the inclusive government where it comes to opening up the media in its holistic sense (print, broadcast and ICT based).  Moreover, the government has sought more a quantitative approach to media reforms with the simplistic assumption that ‘the more the merrier’.

Such an approach is one that foregoes the qualitative impact of the media on society as well as skirts the questions of the fundamental democratic value of media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information.  This is why the Zimbabwean media has at least four statutory regulatory bodies where and when it comes to elections, electoral processes and in general. These are namely the Zimbabwe  Electoral Commission, the Zimbabwe Media Commission, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe and the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority. 

Further still, the state's paternalistic attitude toward the media sadly has come to be reflected in our recently 'referendum approved' draft constitution which has retained clauses that are inimical to democratic media freedom. Particularly in section 86 where freedom of expression is not listed as a right to which limitations should not apply. And also sections 248 and 249 where statutory regulation and criminalization of the media is enforced with greater emphasis than before. 

These clauses reflect a contemptuous, paternalistic and undemocratic attitude by the state toward media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information. It is also reflective of an ahistorical approach toward media freedom where the state and those that drafted the constitution failed to understand the full import of the statement made in 2001 by the late national hero Eddison Zvobgo to Parliament when the latter was debating the notorious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). In his adverse Parliamentary Legal committee Report, the late Honourable Zvobgo asked, and I am paraphrasing, ‘Where in the world have governments licensed its people to speak?’ This unfortunately is the contemporary state of affairs.

So as we debate the Media, Democracy and Elections, it remains imperative that we do not lose sight of the bigger picture over and about the same.  The media can only play its rightful role if its freedom is democratically respected.  Elections can only result in a government for the people and by the people if the media operates in an environment that does not criminalise freedom of expression and access to information. Such an environment cannot and should not be defined incrementally. Nor should it be invoked only during election periods as appears to be the case where and when political parties scramble for media coverage.  Instead it must be viewed as a cornerstone and founding principle of a democratic society. To think and do otherwise would be to betray the people of Zimbabwe.
Thank you.