By Takura Zhangazha*
The government appointed Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) has been engaged in at least a month’s long public outreach programme. It has been reported that some of the public meetings have been characterized by low to reasonable attendance and also that members of the public that have attended are generally in the dark as to what exactly the inquiry is all about. Until they get to the scheduled meeting where initial explanations are given as to why senior journalists and civil servants are soliciting their opinions on the media in general.
The reported input thus far has been that the members of the public that have been consulted are emphasizing the need for community radio stations. In some cases they have also been asking about the impartiality and lack of broadcasting reach of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC). On other occasions there is mention of serious concerns as to existent media laws and the unethical conduct of journalists.
In all of these reported submissions to IMPI, the common thread has been that there is limited public knowledge of the specific mandate of the public outreach or those that are conducting it. Either by way of occurrence (venue, date, time of meetings) or by way of the terms of reference that inform it.
The latter two points can possibly be explained by lack of adequate publicity around IMPI. Or if the publicity has been adequate, it might be due to a lack of public interest, a possibility which is highly unlikely. The Zimbabwean public has a general interest where and when it comes to government officials soliciting their views. Sometimes for politically partisan reasons (as was the case with the constitutional reform exercise) or for the mere spectacle of giving a rarely solicited opinion to government officials that talk more than they listen.
So the truth of the matter is that the IMPI outreach programme, perhaps well meaning, was badly planned and is being executed with a stubborn determination in order to probably ‘just get it over with.’ Particularly given the fact that it is no longer ‘early days’ of either the appointment of the panel or the launch of its public outreach. How else can one explain its low public interest? Or alternatively its muted explanation of its full terms of reference? Perhaps the latter are not too clear or if they are, the panel may not feel it necessary to explain them fully, a development that would be as unfortunate as it would be undemocratic.
What this regretfully points to is that IMPI has started off on a bad footing. While it is a good thing that the panelists that are in charge of IMPI are from a multiplicity of media houses, organizations, that alone does not make the process credible. Especially where it comes to issues of soliciting public views.
For media practitioners, given their training and the significant trust that the public has placed (or should place) in them, it behooves them to explain what they are seeking from the general citizenry in a much more democratic and transparent manner. Especially where they are willing participants in a government sanctioned policy review process.
The immediate and still assumed optimistic significance of the process that IMPI is undertaking has been that it is the precursor to an improvement of both the media environment and the capacity of the journalism and the media to effectively carry out their role as the fourth estate. This would mean that IMPIs review and public consultation processes are essentially meant to have the end effect of further democratizing the media law environment and ensuring that the media, in its totality, plays a much more significantly democratic role in the affairs of the country. Especially where it rides on the back of the new Sections 61 and 62 of the constitution which guarantee media freedom and access to information respectively.
The signs in reality might be pointing to a different and less preferable end result. The very fact that IMPI’s terms of reference and eventual accountability mechanism are either not officially known or deliberately vague points to the serious risk that this might be an exercise that is not as honest as expected.
Furthermore, the failure by media stakeholders to explore the full import of IMPI through either further analysis or alternatively establishing public debate platforms in their publications or stations raises eyebrows as to how much confidence they place in the process.
That those that would be directly affected have not shown enthusiasm in broader publicizing of the process or flagging out key issues might point to the possibility that there is no anticipation of fundamental changes to the media policy framework as it obtains. At least not without direct government benevolence.
The debate around challenges and prospects of the media under the aegis of IMPI, as broad based as it appears, must be bigger and have a direct resonance with the public. At the moment it is neither. As a result, the media profession, media businesses and media organizations, run the risk of being seen as peripheral to the day to day lives of ordinary citizens. Let alone the democratic culture of the country.
With whatever time it has left in carrying out its mandate, IMPI has to perform better, even if we do not really know its terms of reference. The opportunity it has to review the media might have been granted by the current Minister of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services, but the results of the same should transcend either his tenure or his benevolence. Not only because these are things that should have been done long back but also because, the media is so integral to our prospects of realizing meaningful democracy in Zimbabwe, its stakeholders and government cannot afford to be casual, vague and elitist in seeking to democratize it further.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)