Editor’s Memo

What press freedom?


By Joram Nyathi


WORLD Press Freedom day has come and gone. Unlike other social maladies like Operation Murambatsvina, it has left no footprints in the media industry in Zimbabwe except for self-serving apologia from mendacious

state propagandists.

What I always find debilitating about the debate on media freedom and freedom of expression in Zimbabwe is the way it is framed as if we have to apologise for our liberty. This inclination is evident in the way everyone in the state media tries to demonstrate to us how Zimbabwe’s media laws compare to those of the United States, especially the much-maligned Patriot Act passed after September 11.

There are similar and equally misleading efforts to tell us how well our Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act compares to media laws elsewhere or even how statutes limiting foreign investment in the local media compare favourably with those of countries like Australia.

Nothing could be more misleading and further from the truth. More importantly, there is a tendency to conflate the letter and the spirit of the law, a danger from which only an independent and non-partisan judiciary can save us.

Press freedom need not necessarily be about comparisons. It is our freedom as citizens of an independent Zimbabwe. If the US government chooses to close down newspapers using the Patriot Act — which needless to say it cannot do — it should not expect to get any support from us. But that is not the point. The point is that the spirit and letter of that Act was never to shut down newspapers or to turn all journalists into propaganda mouthpieces in the fight against terrorism.

Any state will impose limitations on the media or even people’s movements in an emergency. I have therefore been shocked by media practitioners pretending that government’s economic mismanagement and the hunger it has spawned are national emergencies that require us to speak with one voice.

The other such national emergency was the MDC. One minister went so far as to talk of “a national ethos” to safeguard the interests of the country. This is a shameless parody.

What World Press Freedom did remind us of was the psychological damage wrought on this country by Aippa, the Broadcasting Services Act, and the Public Order and Security Act. Everybody is afraid. All of them have badly constricted the democratic space over the past six years. Their combined effect has been the closure of four newspapers since September 2003 and the consequent loss of employment for hundreds of journalists, most of them trained at a huge cost to the state. Nothing has been gained in return for this vindictive action.

While the Zimbabwe Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, it is remarkably silent on the media and the press. This has enabled the government to whittle away most of these rights through iniquitous subsidiary legislation such as Aippa. What the basic law gives us, Aippa snatches away through artifice. And the courts have not objected.

It is evident that more people have been deprived of their freedom to receive and impart information by the closure of the Daily News. If the law was not meant to be vindictive, the Daily News, its sister paper the Daily News on Sunday, the Tribune and the Weekly Times could easily have been sanctioned by a lesser penalty than closure for their alleged violation of an unnecessary and profoundly defective law.

This is where Aippa differs fundamentally with Swedish media law, often cited as a template. The point is to regulate and manage, not to shut down newspapers because their ownership structure has changed. It is patently self-serving that the government enacts a law and immediately becomes the foremost complainant. One cannot avoid the feeling that the law was target-specific and the ANZ gave a hostage to fortune by refusing to register. Quite conveniently, the Minister of Information has now no power to reverse the ban on the Daily News despite a High Court ruling indicating that the Media and Information Commission was biased in its dealings with the ANZ application for a licence.

There is another embarrassing paradox. While Zimbabwe wants to boast having the highest literacy rate on the continent, it remains about the only country that still has one state-controlled television station. While we boast that we are the most educated, we don’t want our graduates to be free and to engage in enterprises that challenge the political status quo. The National Development Assembly launched by Mutumwa Mawere was quickly shut down as soon as its National Agenda on ZTV asked politically inconvenient questions of the national leadership.

Its greatest crime was to be all-inclusive by allowing for live interactive phone-in questions from the public, which could not be brushed aside. When the ZBC tried a similar project by encouraging live debates between Zanu PF and MDC officials, it was stopped. It was too embarrassing for incompetent apparatchiks.

BBC’s Hard Talk is my favourite programme. It reflects media freedom at its best by putting politicians on the spot to justify why they have to eat taxpayers’ hard-earned money. It would be interesting for instance to have Sekesai Makwavarara of the Harare Commission explaining her excesses and why refuse isn’t being collected in the suburbs.  I have no doubt residents would relish such an encounter with her.

Another candidate would be the enterprising minister who dreamt up the expensive new vehicle number plates. To this day I don’t know why they were necessary. Was there a public tender to print the number plates?