THE Zimbabwean public are being short-changed in terms of access to information which is vital for deciding what party to support ahead of next year’s parliamentary election.
In order for voters to make an informed choice, they should have access to a variety of views. Twenty-four years after Independence voters have never had such a limited range of views to choose from. Following the closure of the Daily News, there is only one daily newspaper that is not owned by the government. And it reflects views not very different from the regime’s.
There are a handful of weeklies such as our own, but they are aimed at niche markets and cannot pretend to play the role a daily does in keeping the public informed on a 24-hour basis. Stories this week, for instance, about prominent Zimbabwean politicians have been carried in the South African press yet denied to the Zimbabwean public, with the exception of a story in the Daily Mirror based on South African press reports and the usual denials in the Herald.
We endeavour on a Friday to bring you some of the news being withheld during the week. But inevitably stories fall through the cracks in the media floor.
Very simply Zimbabweans are not getting the volume of information they deserve for a variety of reasons, most to do with repression and control.
The Media and Information Commission has prevented the Daily News from registering. At the same time the government media has become a crude instrument of the ruling party which has an interest in ensuring that every piece of news that could influence public perceptions of the regime is spun to maximum effect.
In other words, the very opposite of access to information is taking place. The reading public are being blocked from knowing what is happening around them. What news they do get from official sources has been fully sanitised.
Part of the problem lies with a regulatory body that is hostile to a free press. As Professor Guy Berger pointed out in our columns last week, registration is not a formality. It is designed to control and manipulate.
Worldwide, Prof Berger pointed out, generally only broadcasters are licensed, and that is for technical reasons of limited frequencies. In the few cases where newspapers are registered, it is purely an administrative matter and applications cannot be rejected for political reasons.
It is worth emphasising these points because we are frequently told that Aippa is similar to legislation elsewhere. It is not and I am surprised the Swedish embassy allows to pass unchallenged repeated claims that Aippa bears some resemblance to Sweden’s regulatory system.
“The facts are straightforward,” Berger says. “Through registration the regime of President Mugabe has raped its country’s media and robbed its people of their right to information.”
For those who argue that the media needs regulating, there are many means of securing accountability, Berger points out. In addition to laws of defamation there are complaints systems of the sort that have been up and running for many years elsewhere and which Misa and the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum have been proposing for this country.
If progress has been slow, it may be because we are operating in a siege climate!
The African Union’s Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa is unambiguous. It affirms “the fundamental importance of freedom of expression as an individual human right, as a cornerstone of democracy, and as a means of ensuring respect for all human rights and freedoms”.
Zimbabwe is in violation of those AU principles. And it’s not OK as South African ministers such as Penuell Maduna have been suggesting.
ZBC is increasingly sounding like Rwanda’s Radio Mille Collines in 1994. This is a so-called public broadcaster that denies room to the public it is supposed to serve. And rival broadcasters are prevented from offering competition despite a Supreme Court ruling ordering the freeing of the airwaves.
Similarly, government-owned newspapers reflect only a narrow and partisan view of events in the country. This is not the sort of climate in which an election campaign can be fairly conducted. Put together with all the other structural impediments to a free and fair poll, it looks as if we are heading for a situation even more hostile to democratic practice than that of 2002.
Since the closing of the Daily News government spokesmen have stepped up their attacks on this newspaper. While this is to be expected, their bitter recriminations are not a good advertisement for a successful regime. Indeed, their preoccupation with this newspaper would suggest we are making a difference!
What I can’t understand is why a government that claims to be so popular feels a compelling need to close down democratic space, prevent the publication of alternative views, threaten its critics, and assault anybody demonstrating against its rule. Is this the behaviour of a regime safely ensconced in the affection of its people? And does it really think it can keep a lid on democratic expression forever?
Visiting Tanzanian ministers may helpfully ignore the realities around them. But Zimbabwe’s crisis won’t go away so long as intolerance and repression remain the chief electoral supports propping up this failed administration.