Too little, too late

THE government of President Mugabe was this week flaunting its democratic credentials after fast-tracking through parliament four Bills amending a raft of contentious pieces of legislation.

gn=justify>Two laws, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act, have sat on our statute books like a curse for over five years as government has maintained that there was method in its madness in enacting them. This paper has over this period recorded statements by government officials defending Aippa and Posa as necessary legislative weapons which will not be amended because they were serving the government well.

But the Zanu PF government was this week at pains to demonstrate that it had morphed into an institution amenable to progressive engagement with the opposition, hence the amendment of the laws. Leader of the House and Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa defended the tramelling of the Bills through parliament because this was necessary under the negotiated settlement with the opposition.

Chinamasa’s statement betrayed a desperation within Zanu PF to legitimise President Mugabe’s continued stranglehold on power even when evidence abounds that he is way past his best-before date. This is Zanu PF’s hurried gardening to pretend to be levelling the political playing field on the eve of important elections in March next year.

The Bills in our view still fall far short of democratic requirements in the attempt to launder the soiled image of the Zanu PF regime.

We note that despite progressive clauses on accreditation of local journalists and licensing of media houses, the law still puts serious curbs on media freedom.

Under the new dispensation the old partisan Media and Information Commission is being replaced by a Zimbabwe Media Commission which like its forerunner bears the perilous traits of Orwellian thought control.

The new commission possesses sweeping quasi-judicial powers where it can sit as a court to investigate, prosecute and sentence journalists and media houses deemed to be out of line. Fines are paid to the commission and not the state! More flagrant though is the fact that appeals against its decisions to the Administrative Court do not nullify the verdicts of the commission.

What kind of justice is this?

The new commission remains an unwanted bureaucratic appendage in this modern era when statutory regulation of the media is frowned upon. But to add to this red tape, the law also sets up a Media Council to be chaired by one of the commissioners. A cursory reading of the law brings to the fore the duplication of roles. The commission has powers to “cause … an investigation” in the event of a breach of ethical codes. On the other hand the council can also “cause an inquiry” on issues to do with breach of ethics.

The layers of bureaucracy and replication of roles can only cause delays, which is against the spirit of a well- constituted media council: that is to resolve disputes between media and the public expeditiously. We share the sentiments of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Zimbabwe) that self-regulation is the way forward.

The amendments continue with the government tradition of barring foreign journalists from working in Zimbabwe. There are amendments to Section 80 — which deal with abuse of journalistic privilege — to bring it in line with new sections to do with breach of journalistic codes. This appears to soften this section of Aippa which is notorious for criminalising the profession. But this does not remove the axe which has continued to hang menacingly over the heads of reporters and their editors.

The Zanu PF government still has on the statute books Section 15 of the Public Order and Security Act which makes it an offence to “denigrate the name of the president”. There is also the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which brought together some of the more detestable aspects of Posa and Aippa with new names and more restrictive clauses. Total media reform entails getting rid of these laws altogether.

We also do not regard the amendment to Posa as a guarantee that police will change their modus operandi when dealing with opposition supporters and civic activists. The amendment provides that the organisers of public gatherings should “enter into a dialogue” with the police before the law enforcers block the holding of a gathering.

This is a cumbersome process which is unhelpful in an environment where our police do not have people skills. We do not see the law stopping the police taking instructions from politicians or simply blocking a rally on the specious pretext of lack of manpower. Why does one have to dialogue with the police to express their right to demonstrate? But most worrying in all this is nothing has really changed in Zanu PF. It is a party that does not believe in competition and does not resultantly have the will to reform its ways.

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