Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Citizens, Not Government, Will Protect Zim Journalists (if asked)

By Takura Zhangazha*

The recent arrest and charging of Sunday Mail Editor Mabasa Sasa and two of the papers journalists, Brian Chitemba and Tinashe Farawo is a sad and dangerous development for Zimbabwe’s media.  As journalists they do not in any way deserve to have criminal charges brought against them for stories they write. And media organizations are correct in condemning these recent arrests for being patently undemocratic and in violation of section 61 of the bill of rights in the constitution.

What has been most astounding has been the Zimbabwe Republic Police’s  (ZRP) justification of the arrests.  The force’s spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner Charity Charamba  in a press statement argued that the journalists, through their story, essentially published a falsehood and undermined the authority of not only the police but also other security services. In her assertions she also accuses the media of abusing  what she refers to as 'journalistic privilege'.  It is however important to note that the police’s allegations and accusations shall now be determined by a court of law and until then, remain exactly what they are, allegations.

It is equally important to understand that the police’s actions are not necessarily to be viewed as out of sync with the attitude of politically powerful persons in the country.  Over the last months there have been veiled and direct threats against journalists and the media.  Not least from the President himself when he referred to going ‘rigid’ on what he perceives as errant journalism or the first lady who also has had no kind words for the fourth estate at her rallies.  This has not been helped by statements attributed to the permanent secretary in the ministry of media, information and broadcasting services who has been touting the government sponsored Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) report as pretext to introduce stronger (read as criminal defamation) regulatory frameworks for the media.

Even seasoned newspaper columnists, while using the same platforms, have recently begun an unfortunate habit of self righteous finger pointing at journalism’s faults within  context of evident acrimony that really does not help freedom of expression and media freedom.

So the police may feel that they are merely speeding up processes that political leaders and some opinion makers are anticipating or even comfortable with against media freedom.  Hence the loud silence from the ministry of media, information and broadcasting services.

There is therefore a pattern to this newfound hostility toward the media.  Some of it can be found in the fact that there is the ratcheted desire to control media content by varying political factions in both the ruling and opposition parties. Both for general political expediency but more in order to manage succession battles in the ruling party and leadership contests in the opposition.  These contests are to be expected. What is however undemocratic is the overreach of criminal defamation in seeking this sort of control. And acting in disregard of the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression and media freedom.

But the media itself is not without fault. And one of its major obstacles has been its continual inability to negotiate its professional space. Both by way of overcoming partisan positioning fueled largely by media owners (government and private entities).  The Zimbabwean media therefore has to espouse the democratic value of its own existence beyond the partisan politics of the day in order to garner greater public support for its democratically important public work. And the point must be made clear that this sort of solution is not going to be found in the contested IMPI report or trading petty accusations against each other  in personalised opinion columns. This is because it is largely the Zimbabwean public’s misunderstanding of the democratic importance of a robust, ethical and public interest focused media that allows state officials and even the ZRP to continue to act with impunity against journalists. 

There is a further caveat to this.  The media must also begin to ostensibly campaign against the criminalization of freedom of expression, not just for itself, but for the ordinary citizen because it is in the ordinary peoples perceptions and lack of knowledge of rights that government gets the wherewithal to act with impunity.  Where citizens are arrested for expressing a view of the president, or a public official and convicted via a fine or custodial sentence, the media must stand up for these citizens right to express themselves.  Where it does not, the citizen will not see the need to do so in return.  Hence sometimes there is the ridiculous argument that the media needs to be monitored by the state via the threat of criminal sanction as though expressing an opinion or writing a story in the public interest is as criminal as misappropriating medical aid services contributions.  And if you wanted an answer to the latter point, no it is not.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)