By Sizwe Thuthuka
LAST year, the Embassy of Sweden in Harare organised a tour for local journalists to visit media regulatory agencies, journalist unions and prominent media houses in that country. The tour
was a culmination of incessant government propaganda that sought to present the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) as a lesser evil than the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act.
In a statement, Kristina Svensson, Ambassador of Sweden to Zimbabwe, told the journalists that she wanted to promote a better understanding of Swedish media laws and the freedom of expression culture in her country.
The tour was open to journalists from both the private and government media. Journalists from Zimpapers and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings opted out under unclear circumstances, even when their bosses, under the banner of the Zimbabwe Association of Editors, resolved to take part. Take part they did, but they chose to remain silent after the tour.
Private media journalists who took part in the tour gave testimonials that contradicted the perception given by pro-Aippa supporters such as Media and Information Commission (MIC) chairperson Tafataona Mahoso. The journalists wrote about voluntary media regulation and zero-tolerance for government interference in the operation of the media.
This came under criticism from those defending harsh regulations on the media in Zimbabwe. For example, Tendai Chari writing in the Sunday Mirror in his column “Media analysis” chose an example of the arrest of a journalist in the 80s to buttress his claims that even in the West journalists are arrested and have to operate within the confines “of the law”.
The writing on the wall can sometimes be deceptive. In a lengthy article in 2002, Mahoso conveniently cited clauses in the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act that limit the right of the media to publish state secrets and other classified information. Despite his brilliant attempt, he conveniently ignored to mention that a competent court of law, not an extra-judiciary body (or quasi-judiciary bodies) such as the MIC, handles such cases. Even then, the right to freedom of expression takes precedence over other interests in such matters.
Swedes protect their media from any form of censorship and punish anyone found guilty of attempting to censor information. They subsidise private media and have used the concept of the ombudsman to ensure journalists — local and foreign — have unfettered access to information. A voluntary press council ensures that complaints by members of the public on media conduct are resolved amicably thereby minimising costs that would have otherwise been expended had the case been handled through normal court processes.
The 1766 Swedish Freedom of the Press Act is premised on preventing any public authority from censoring news and information. Aippa is premised on a different set of principles altogether. Clearly, one of them is to curb perceived negative reporting about Zimbabwe by sections of the media, if it is really true that its provisions were based on the recommendations of a survey by the government-appointed Media Ethics Committee.
There is nothing objectionable to this when it is done within the confines of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, which is the supreme law of the land. The Supreme Court has confirmed that some restrictions and penalties in Aippa are acceptable, but on all occasions, these decisions have not been unanimous.
Of concern is the continuing rhetoric that is churned out by the new office bearers in the Ministry of Information and Publicity, aided by their eloquent permanent secretary George Charamba. Despite the fact that there is limited and anecdotal evidence linking practice under Aippa to practice under laws in the West, they continue invoking statutes elsewhere — Portugal, Switzerland, Britain and the United States — as either similar or worse than Aippa.
If Aippa were bad, none of the “noisy” private newspapers would be operational, they argue.
We are short of Western examples on the latter — which is the reason the debate is reduced to “clauses” and “provisions” in these Western statutes, at the expense of concrete examples on the ground, a challenge which media professionals and civic media organisations have not taken up.
The wording in the statutes may be similar, but their implementation in Zimbabwe has failed to convince even the most indoctrinated that the actions of the MIC are necessary for the promotion of the free flow of information in the public interest.
One imagines the apprehension that afflicts the new Information minister and his deputy when journalists and civic media organisations talk about the repeal of broadcasting laws and Aippa. It means they have a reduced mandate if they choose to do away with the institutions created by these laws.
However, information ministries have a life beyond repressive legislation, as examples elsewhere indicate. Some countries have enshrined provisions that uphold freedom of expression and the media, but have done away with full ministries of information. Countries closer to home such as Mozambique and South Africa are good examples.
Simply put, the free flow of information in the public interest does not need political interference.
However, given the current dispensation, journalists and civic media organisations should demand that the practice in Sweden and other countries given as examples now and again be practised in Zimbabwe. This means that journalists can initiate parallel engagement with a view to having the laws repealed and also have the anomalies that occurred due to their enactment revisited immediately.
*Sizwe Thuthuka is an independent media commentator based in Harare.