THE anticipated reforms to Zimbabweâ€™s media landscape could test the inclusive governmentâ€™s sincerity in effecting the Global Political Agreement after years of maintaining a grip on public media and the stifling of dissenting voices.
Media experts have predicted that prospective newspapers could soon join Zimbabweâ€™s media space but would-be broadcasters might have to wait a bit longer before being granted operating licences by the new government, despite promises espoused in the GPA.
Last week government undertook a three-day ministerial cabinet retreat in Victoria Falls, where a 100-day work plan was adopted to tackle the socio-economic crisis in line with the Short Term Emergency Recovery Programme (Sterp).
Among issues that were given top priority at the get-to-know each other meeting were matters of media reform and dietary requirements for Zimbabweâ€™s hunger-stricken inmates after mounting pressure from civic organisations demanding an urgent address to the dire situation in prisons.
Seemingly reacting to the nerve-wracking documentary by the SABC, government called for a 30-day deadline to meet the welfare of prisoners.
The retreat ended with government ministries being grouped into five clusters that are tasked to come up with key result areas in the next 100 days â€” economic, social, rights and interests, security and infrastructure.
Government tasked the Rights and Interests cluster comprising Media, Information and Publicity; Justice, Foreign Affairs, Constitutional Affairs and National Healing ministries to effect urgent reforms affecting current and new media players.
But clarity on how these reforms should be undertaken and cash constraints could be the missing links. The Short Term Emergency Recovery Programme will require $8,5 billion over the next two to three years. It will depend heavily on Western and regional aid.
Parliament is due to establish a Zimbabwe Media Commission, which will replace the widely criticised Media and Information Commission.
Resultantly a dilemma has arisen for new players that have shown interest to join the media turf. Wary of the current regulatory vacuum, we could see new players in wait-and-see mode. Â
Experts contend that lack of clear policy and limited frequencies on the countryâ€™s electro-magnetic spectrum could result in a gold rush for new players as the new inclusive government drives towards freeing the airwaves.
Anticipated media reforms could see the return of banned international media such as the BBC, CNN as well as locally owned broadcasters which government hopes would aid in re-branding Zimbabweâ€™s stained image abroad.
Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara recently expressed his commitment to bring international media back in line with governmentâ€™s drive to re-brand the countryâ€™s unappealing image. Such reforms could be a major blow for state-controlled public media such as the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation that not only has a monopolistic advantage but also has reflected a skewed partisan editorial policy.
Under the September 15 power-sharing pact, which underpinned decisions that were made at the retreat, existing media and prospective players should register with the new regulatory authority. Â
â€œThe parties hereby agree: that the government shall ensure the immediate processing by the appropriate authorities of all applications for re-registration and registration in terms of both the Broadcasting Services Act as well as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act,â€ reads the GPA document.
â€œAll Zimbabwean nationals including those currently working for or running external radio stations be encouraged to make applications for broadcasting licences, in Zimbabwe, in terms of the law.
â€œIn recognition of the open media environment anticipated by this agreement, the parties hereby call upon the governments hosting and or funding external radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe to cease such hosting and funding, and encourage the Zimbabweans running or working for external radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe to return to Zimbabwe.â€
The inclusive government treaty also bars public and private media from using â€œabusive languageâ€ that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred or that unfairly undermines political parties and â€œother organisationsâ€.
â€œThe only regulation that the media would require is that of the airwaves because there is an infinite resource, said Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe head, Andy Moyse. â€œAt the moment it is not clear how new broadcasters would come in. There is no national policy for the allocation of the bandwidth.â€
Currently registration of broadcasters is undertaken by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe in compliance with the Broadcasting Services Act and Aippa.
This policy shortcoming, Moyse added, could result in a â€œstampedeâ€ where politically or strategically positioned investors would jostle to secure permission to broadcast.
Zimbabwe Voluntary Media Council chairman Muchadeyi Masunda expressed optimism that government could soon liberalise the â€œunnecessary restrictiveâ€ legal provisions affecting journalists and media organisations.
â€œWe would like to see a situation where there is proper liberalisation of the media -both print and electronic,â€ Masunda said.
A code of ethics has been drawn up by media practitioners and the Zimbabwe Voluntary Media Council has been established to effect self-regulation of the media. This Council also has as its object the protection and advancement of the freedom of the press.
â€œUltimately the solution is the repeal of unnecessary restrictive constraints enshrined in Aippa,â€ Masunda said. â€œThere are enough laws to protect the public from a harmful media. More importantly the media requires a self-regulatory body along the same lines as other professional bodies such as the Zimbabwe Institute of Engineers and the Law Society of Zimbabwe. I donâ€™t think there would be any obstacles in making reforms.â€
Section 80 of Aippa criminalises a journalist for publishing information without having reasonable grounds for believing the information to be true and the published information threatens economic interests of the state or public morality, or is injurious to the reputation of other persons.
Apart from Aippa, government has an arsenal of laws such as Civil and Criminal Defamation and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
Government, Masunda added, should ensure that there are no hurdles for new players and allow the market to determine whether a new media venture can succeed.
â€œRepealing Aippa might not happen immediately but that has to be done. We have to look at the Constitutional Amendment 19 and see how we can move that agenda.
The new media commission should cater for all stakeholders,â€ said the veteran attorney.
Officially opening the lavish retreat, President Robert Mugabe pledged to fully support reforms that would bring to an end to a tight grip on media which critics said was a key to his longevity in office.
Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa said there was need to create a political climate where divergent voices can be heard.
BY BERNARD MPOFU