THE filing of opposing papers to Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe’s bid to get registered by the Minister of Information Tichaona Jokonya h
as exposed government’s determination to uphold repressive media laws and keep the Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday closed.
Despite promising to consider proposals to amend the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) by removing its restrictive clauses — assurances of which were given to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Banjul by government law officers — Jokonya is showing signs of a hardening position to maintain laws that were spearheaded by his predecessor, Jonathan Moyo, to suppress the media and shield government from scrutiny.
In the process Jokonya and government show that regardless of their attempts to distance themselves from Moyo’s projects, they are still part and parcel of them. Jokonya revealed his intention by filing opposing papers to the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ)’s application in the High Court in which the newspaper group wants to be deemed registered.
The ANZ is arguing that the Media and Information Commission, chaired by Tafataona Mahoso, and Jokonya violated the law by failing to deal with their case within a month from a February 8 judgement that nullified a July 2005 MIC decision not to grant their application. The High Court also ruled that the MIC was disabled from presiding over the latest case due to perceived bias.
Analysts this week said Jokonya’s assertion that he stands by the MIC and Mahoso shows he has failed to change government thinking in dealing with the media. In opposing the ANZ registration bid, Jokonya however admitted that Aippa has flaws.
“It is also my submission that matters of public policy and interest are best served only when a party is heard on the merits and not by orders obtained on a technicality arising from a lapse or otherwise in the provisions of a piece of legislation,” said Jokonya in his papers.
On the MIC, the former diplomat said: “I submit that I still retain confidence in the entire membership of the first respondent and therefore I do not wish to remove it… as no member of the first respondent has done anything in respect of this matter which I consider to be in breach of the law, otherwise to dissolve the current commission would set a bad precedent as it would mean that whenever a commission is accused of bias it would have to be dissolved.”
The head of research and monitoring at the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ), Nhlanhla Ngwenya, said: “We think that despite the departure of the former Information minister Jonathan Moyo, the authority’s pathological hatred of the independent media still remains. For instance, the MIC is still in place despite the fact that the court found its chairman Tafataona Mahoso to be biased.”
He added that another indication was that apart from maintaining the repressive laws, the government intends to add legislation to the statutes, like the Interception of Communications Bill that would hinder the free flow of information.
Ngwenya said although Jokonya and his deputy Bright Matonga had promised to look into Aippa and the Broadcasting Services Act, they have not come up with a timetable to do so.
“It would be naïve to think that he has any intention to democratise the media because the same culture is still with us,” added Ngwenya.
The director of the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa), Rashweat Mukundu, said from the look of things, media reforms may take some years to be effected.
“We do not see any changes in the immediate future,” said Mukundu. “It will take a lot of struggle to remove the entrenched repressive legislation although we are saying the first step must be now.”
Mukundu said Jokonya, who promised to break with government’s confrontational stance against the private press, also faces constraints as a result of people in his ministry and government in general who are opposed to reforms.
“There are people within the ministry who believe that the law (Aippa) is a good law. He is also a Zanu PF person through and through. He is a ruling party member of parliament and is answerable to Mugabe,” said Mukundu.
George Charamba, Jokonya’s permanent secretary, has persistently defended the Act and has hinted that it will not be amended.
In the court documents Jokonya said while the ANZ accused the MIC and the minister of inaction following the February 8 judgement, he was not to blame as the matter had been stalled by the fact that Aippa does not empower him to do so.
“The relief sought unfairly suggests that I have not been able to resolve the problem faced by the applicant, which problem is not of my own making. In fact the non-availability of powers in the Act to appoint an ad hoc commission has affected progress.”
David Chimhini, the head of the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust (Zimcet), on Tuesday said the way the government was handling the issue had become a circus.
“As a nation we need to be given reasons that are satisfactory,” said Chimhini. “It must not appear as if a newspaper is being denied registration for political reasons. A decision must be taken once and for all.”
He added that when Jokonya came into office he gave the impression that “he would want to see newspapers flourishing under freedom of expression” but it would seem that the Daily News will take some years before hitting the streets.
Unlike his predecessor, Jokonya met editors from both the private and the public media, representatives of media organisations such as Misa, the MMPZ and the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ).
“I think it may take time to come back. One needs to look at the Econet saga. It took patience,” said Chimhini.
Notwithstanding his stand in court papers that he has confidence in the MIC, last year Jokonya suggested that the present media body was on its way out.
In a letter dated November 22 to ZUJ, Jokonya said he had delayed “the reconstruction of the MIC board of governors deliberately to ensure that the new board for this vital arm of the industry can be more representative”.
In another letter last December to extend the tenure of commissioner Jonathan Maphenduka, the minister said:
“The extension also takes into account the on-going consultations between the ministry and stakeholders in the media regarding the future of the industry.”
Chimhini said the case is intertwined with other cases where government has to look at amending other laws hindering freedom of assembly, association and speech.
“It is not a question of dealing with freedom of expression only. We need to look at other laws such as Posa that do not promote participatory democracy,” he said.