By Takura Zhangazha*
The management of the New Ambassador hotel in Harare last week deemed it fit to prevent a discussion on commemorating 36 years of independence at the Press/Quill Club that is housed in their building. The reason they gave was that there was need for a police clearance letter.
It turns out, and sadly so, that this new undemocratic attitude of the hotel management may have been motivated in part by the fact that they recently got summoned to Harare Central police station over a press conference that was held by those who have since been convicted in the Gushungo Dairy attempted bombing saga.
The questioning of the hotel management is similar to that visited upon the director of the Media Center and his colleagues in Harare over and about the same case. Neither of the two institutions has issued an official statement to explain what exactly transpired.
The development that we ostensibly know is that hosting a press conference, even for a targeted group of people, which is not a public meeting, can get you questioned by the police for a decent time period. And we can only hope that journalists, media freedom activists, lawyers and organisations can get to the bottom of the matter sooner rather than later.
What we definitely now know is that the New Ambassador Hotel management has decided in part, to attempt at administering the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) on behalf of the police over and about press club debates. This, through using their security department for good measure.
This is obviously a first since the press club does not hold or host public meetings. Instead it generally holds press discussions or press conferences that are specifically aimed at small audiences that are not considered ‘public’.
This understanding that the Quill Club is generally a professional space for those that work as journalists and in the media had before the recent actions of the hotel management been a shared one.
Various political actors, inclusive of government ministers, senior civil servants, civil society activists, unionists, gender activists, youth leaders have not only frequented the Press Club but also sought to utilise it to speak to the press.
Almost as though it were tradition the New Ambassador Hotel has been home to all sorts of civil debate, formal and informal. Luminaries such as the writers Charles Mungoshi, Stanley Nyamfukudza, Freedom T.V Nyamubaya and Dambudzo Marechera used to visit it to not only socialise but also to discuss issues they felt were pertinent. The same with political figures such as the late national heroes, Eddison Sithole, Eddison Zvobgo, Sikhanyiso Ndlovhu, Willie Musarurwa as well as others such as the late James Chikerema.
This tradition of debate continued through even the more turbulent years of the 2000s (including 2008-2009). Various debates were held on seemingly more 'volatile' issues which included electoral violence, media reform and the welfare of journalists. Politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties were always willing to visit and use the press club to share ideas and debate key issues affecting the country.
It is therefore disheartening that with such an illustrious contribution to freedom of expression and a largely amicable relationship with the press, the hotel’s management has decided to try and control what meetings the Press Club can and cannot hold.
Even if there were administrative challenges around the nature of the relationship between the Quill club and the management, these are always going to be amicably resolved.
What is problematic is the reach into what essentially should be the function of the state in terms of the law. While the proprietors of the hotel have a right to decide who comes into their hotel or uses its facilities, it does not change the fact that it acted against democratic values.
Unfortunately this trend with regard to the collusion of business with the state in effecting undemocratic laws or actions has precedence. Particularly where it comes to the enjoyment of freedom of expression, media freedom and freedom of assembly. Corporate entities such as Steward Bank have already demonstrated this repressive trend with its attempts at getting journalists to reveal their sources last year.
One can only hope that this recent undemocratic act by the New Ambassador Hotel management and its parent company, Rainbow Tourism Group shall not be repeated. Whatever their fears for the profit or relationship with the state, there is always a better way of addressing their challenges. What they cannot do is to play a direct part in diminishing the independence of the press club, media freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)