Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

MEDIA-ZIMBABWE: Promises But Little Action on Press Freedom

Busani Bafana

BULAWAYO, May 16 2009 (IPS) - While journalists welcomed a pledge by the government to reform the country’s closed media space, fears run deep over a horde of laws that continue to make Zimbabwe a media minefield where a ‘wrong’ story can land a journalist behind bars.

Last Monday the Zimbabwe Independent Editor, Vincent Kahiya and the News Editor, Constantine Chimakure, spent a night in police cells after the newspaper published “falsehoods” in a story that named Central Intelligence Officers and police officers in the alleged abduction and torture of MDC and other human rights activists last year. They were charged under the Criminal Codification and Reform Act.

Co-Minister of Home Affairs, Giles Mutsekwa, told the House of Assembly this week that the journalists were arrested without his knowledge and that of the Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri. It is said the arrest was authorised by the Attorney General, Johannes Tomana.

“However, in this particular incident, I want the nation to know that my ministry was not involved in giving instructions to arrest. I was also disgusted that these journalists (Kahiya and Chimakure) have been arrested,” Mutsekwa told the House of Assembly in remarks carried in the media.

The criticism of the conduct by law enforcement agents comes on the heels of the arrest of the Chronicle Editor, Brezhnev Malaba and reporter, Nduduzo Tshuma who had criminal defamation charges levelled against them over a story about a grain scam.

The uncertain safety of journalists has prompted mixed views on the performance and delivery of the GNU in the last 100 days in regard to media reform. While government appears to have taken the right move in calling for dialogue with the media and making a pledge for reforms, journalists are waiting in anticipation and in fear that not much would change.

A recently national media conference in Kariba – at which government sought to solicit the input of journalists on media reforms – heard calls for the overhaul of laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) which restrict media freedom.

“The main issues around media and freedom of expression in Zimbabwe remain the skewed, repressive media laws and abuse of the state media by Zanu PF and its functionaries,” wrote Rashweat Mukundu, a Programme Specialist with the MISA Regional Secretariat, in an opinion piece in the weekly, Zimbabwe Independent.

“Media reforms in Zimbabwe would therefore have to look first at the state policies in relation to media issues, especially how the state, through its arsenal of laws, has virtually destroyed the media in Zimbabwe – save for a few newspapers – harassed for exposing state abuse of citizens,”

Some journalists are convinced the media conference did not achieve much but the MDC was optimistic it would set the tone for media reforms.

“Though the conference was blighted by the justified absence of some key players in the media industry, we note with approval and satisfaction the readiness of the ministry of Media, Information and Publicity to play an active part in the changing times by partaking in a constructive and profitable process which should lead to a multiplicity of media players so that we give Zimbabweans the wide choices they deserve,” MDC Secretary for Information and Publicity, Nelson Chamisa, who is also the Minister for ICTs, said in a statement.

Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) Secretary General, Foster Dongozi, said government pledges are not the same as action.

“The GNU has done nothing in terms of reforming the media in line with Article 19 of the GPA,” Foster Dongozi, told IPS. “It shows government is not interested as we have a situation where journalists are still being arrested even during the Kariba conference.

“Media reform seems to be the last thing in the priorities of the GNU and we will continue talking about this with no concrete results. If anything the first 100 days of GNU have seen the escalation of repression against journalists and again what is frightening is that it is no longer the private media but even journalists from the state media are victims.”

Thanks to a catalogue of laws working as a journalist has become a risky profession in Zimbabwe. Some of the laws include the Broadcasting Services Act, Criminal Codification and Reform Act, Official Secrets Act and the Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act which creates the offence of contempt of Parliament and journalists will be in contempt if they wilfully publish a false or perverted report of any debate or proceedings of Parliament among other issues.

The Interception of Communications Act allows government authorities and agencies to open post office mail and electronic mail as well as demand that internet service providers (I.S.P.s) provide details of such without seeking warrants from the courts.

The raft of laws that undermine press freedom has forced many journalists to work underground as freelancers or to leave Zimbabwe altogether. Fear runs deep in media that the press freedom is still not there because at the publication of an unacceptable story, journalist easily found themselves in jail.

Books detailing Public Order and Security Act, formerly LOMA which was inherited from Smith’s regime, are probably the most worn out of use. This Act has been used to cower, if not to silence political dissent, activists, artists, farmers and journalists.

Deputy Prime minister, Arthur Mutambara, told a public consultative meeting in Gweru this week that government was working on a bill to reform the media allowing the entry of other players.

“We are meeting as cabinet next Tuesday and I do not want to pre-empt things. You should expect to hear something in the near future,” Mutambara was quoted as saying.

MISA says it is time that government commits itself to media reform by doing away with the laws that make it difficult for journalists to do their job.

“The conference served to show nothing had changed because the intension to do something is not the same as doing it when the laws still restrict the freedom of the media” said MISA Zimbabwe Chapter Chairperson, Loughty Dube.

Veteran journalist, Charles Rukuni, told IPS that while the current situation on the application of the laws reflected badly on government and press relations, it was critical for the fraternity not to ignore professionalism at the time of calls for media reforms.

“In Zimbabwe there is need to get back to basics,” Rukuni said. “There in need to re-instil professionalism because some of the reports of the situation in Zimbabwe are not based on facts but perceptions. We are still not getting the two sides of the story. I think every journalist needs to go for retraining because we have been covering issues more from an emotional position rather than looking at the issues objectively.”

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