IF one is to go by the Herald of May 11, the much publicised Media Conference on media reform organised by the Ministry of Information and Publicity confirmed fears that many had, and indeed the fears that led many in the media to stay away â€” that this was a sham of a conference.
First the Herald says the main issue that came out of the conference is that sanctions should be lifted to level the media playing field. It boggles the mind how that issue ever arose in a conference around media in Zimbabwe, of all places.Â
And which level playing field is the Herald talking about? Does this level playing field relate to the dominance of the state media, the Herald included,Â in information dissemination in Zimbabwe? This matter is made so obvious by the fact that the only daily newspapers in Zimbabwe are those owned by Zimpapers after the violent shut down of the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe.
Does this level playing field relate to the dominance of the ZBC which is the sole broadcasting station in Zimbabwe? Does this playing field relate to the detention of Andrisson Manyere who is languishing under police guard in hospital, after being abducted, detained incommunicado?
We ask the question whether this level playing field also relates to the bombings of the Daily News, the hounding out of the country of hundreds of journalists and the arrest of Zimbabwe Independent editors for publishing the story on police complicity in the abduction of Jestina Mukoko, Manyere and others in December.
The Herald did the sceptics of this conference a huge favour by confirming that nothing has changed in the thinking of the Zanu PF government.
The much talked about media conference obviously came to nothing because it was never meant to be about reform, but a confirmation of the desire by the new government to perpetuate the current media law regime by tinkering with the periphery while leaving the centre intact.
This conference completely missed the point by attempting to be a public bus open to all views, including the absurd, to be discussed, except genuine reform.
This newspaper questioned a few weeks ago why some strange topics were included in the programme for this conference.
This conference, we later heard from the former Minister of Information and Publicity Jonathan Moyo writing online, was meant to address those same queries that the media has on the continued harassment of the media. Does it take a conference to raise complaints on the arrests of journalists? Has Zimbabwe sunk this far?
Coming back to the issue of the conference, the Herald story did us favour by exposing, from the unity government point of view, a failure to grasp what a media law conference or discussion is all about.
Such an issue cannot be tackled from a chaotic point of view as has prevailed where all and sundry could present as they please and talk about what might amount to a desire to build a ladder to the moon, censoring the web and shortwave broadcasts.
The main issues around media and freedom of expression in Zimbabwe remain the skewed, repressive media laws and abuse of the state media by Zanu PF and its functionaries. Media reforms in Zimbabwe would therefore have to look first at the state policies in relation to media issues, especially how the state, through its arsenal of laws, has virtually destroyed the media in Zimbabwe â€” save forÂ a few newspapers â€” harassed for exposing state abuse of citizens.
The critical matter around levelling the Zimbabwe media playing field is removing restrictions on the operations of the media and the enactment of laws and policies that guarantee the independence of the state media.
Those in support on this conference cannot pretend that the state media is under any sort of pressure and that the private media in Zimbabwe is a domineering giant suppressing or misrepresenting the voice of those in government and Zimbabwe. The role of the international media is not a concern to Zimbabweans because we neither own, nor have the power to change, the CNN or BBC.
We can however change our own situation, after all the majority of Zimbabweans get their news locally and would appreciate having more local media. In this regard the conference had to acknowledge thatÂ the private media is so vulnerable and weak in Zimbabwe and any serious discussion on levelling the playing field has to start with the reasons for this decline, the closure of the Daily News, Tribune and other newspapers.
Such a discussion has to start with genuine policy issues around opening the airwaves and guaranteeing the independence of the ZBC so that it can represent all voices. The unity government cannot speak of regulation of the print media, success so far.
Who does not know of the â€œsuccessesâ€ of Zanu PF in regulating the media. Does it takeÂ a conference to know that the MIC shut down four newspapers and hounded hundreds of journalist out of the country? And is it the intention of the unity government to continue with the Mahoso-style of media regulation? If so shame on the unity government for this kind of thinking.
Serious discussion on reforms should look into the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Media Commission and the Post and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and how these are not democratically constituted to play any meaningful role in advancing media and communication issues.
The unity government cannot pretend, serve out of ignorance, that these bodies can license, regulate the media and the communications sector in a fair manner while they are not only weak, but directly under the control ofÂ politicians. The bodies also lack any technical capacity and independence toÂ make decisions without political interference.
Media reforms cannot start on or be built on lies that we have regulatory bodies when in fact we have bodies that play a secretarial role to the decisions of politicians.
What did the conference say as an example about the closure of the Daily News, and other newspapers? What did the conference say about the continued detention of journalists? What did the conference say about the biased reporting of Zimpapers publications and ZBC?
What did the conference say about the continued coverage of Zanu PF cell meetings and not those of MDC-T, MDC M, NDU, Zanu Ndonga etc?
It is a shame that the unity government, especially those from the MDC, is being misled and abused in validating Zanu PFâ€™s coverâ€“up conferences. Without fundamentally looking at what the problems in the media in Zimbabwe are, we might as well forget about any meaningful reforms coming up.
The first point of call for any serious media conference is therefore the state or precisely Zanu PF polices on the media. Once we agree that these need reform, everything else will fall into place and citizens can agree on the media we all want. The failure by the unity government to condemn and do away with laws such as Aippa and BSA, among others, shows a lack of sincerity.
The media conference should have understood that in this day and age you cannot waste time discussingÂ radio stations that are broadcasting on shortwave and internet-based sites. Who has control over these and who has the power in Zimbabwe to stop them?
The unity government however has the power to remove Aippa, license new broadcasters, reform the ZBC and Zimpapers to make them relevant to the needs of the people. These are the reforms that people are looking for.
Rashweat Mukundu is a Programme Specialist: Media Monitoring and Research Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Regional Secretariat.
BY RASHWEAT MUKUNDU