WHEN Morgan Tsvangirai returned from his trip to Europe and North America in June he may have come home relatively empty-handed, but he carried a weighty message. Media reform, he was told by just about every head of state he met, was the sine qua non of normalisation of relations and aid.
Since then progress has been glacial. The Kariba all-stakeholders conference in May resolved to take an axe to the hated Aippa but that step now awaits the formation of the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) which has itself been mired in controversy.
Remnants of the ancien regime are seeking to retain control of media regulation via the ZMC while others in the profession, including the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe which embraces the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (Zinef), Misa, the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, and ZUJ, want to see a self-regulatory commission instead. Best practice elsewhere, as I told Parliamentâ€™s Portfolio Committee on Media, Information and Communication last month, points to a voluntary system, particularly where complaints are involved.
Parallel to all this, Zinef has been working to secure undertakings from government regarding the safe return of journalists currently working abroad.
The Global Political Agreement of last September and subsequent statements by the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee and the Victoria Falls gathering of ministers have stressed the need for external media workers to return home and accredit locally so diverse voices can be heard in the countryâ€™s journey to democratic rule. While these appeals were directed in particular at external broadcasters, they apply equally to print and online publishers.
Following a meeting in Johannesburg with our external members in May, I wrote to Minister Webster Shamu asking for guarantees that Zimbabwean nationals working in the Diaspora would be allowed unimpeded access if they chose to return home. This is particularly important given threats made against â€œpirateâ€ broadcasters in the past.
I also sought guarantees for foreign correspondents who had been declared prohibited immigrants on spurious security grounds over the past decade or had their Temporary Employment Permits abruptly terminated.
Mercedes Sayagues and Joe Winter were accused by President Mugabe of â€œdoing lots of other thingsâ€ when they were booted out in 2001.
The Guardianâ€™s Andrew Meldrum was abducted and deported in 2003 despite being a permanent resident and possessing a High Court order forbidding his forced removal.
Mr Shamu responded to my letter by inviting me to a meeting at which deputy minister Jameson Timba and principal director in the Media ministry, Dr Sylvester Maunganidze, were also present. The minister asked me to submit a list of those affected â€“â€“ which I duly did.
I have since heard unofficially that there will be no obstacle to the return of those Zimbabweans whose names I submitted â€“â€“ both broadcasters and publishers. But there has been no official statement to this effect. Nor any word on the status of former foreign correspondents.
This is an unsatisfactory situation. Given the appalling media climate in Zimbabwe since 1999 when Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto were abducted and tortured, followed by the presidentâ€™s televised threats against the publishers of the Standard, there is need for absolute clarity on the status of journalists working in Zimbabwe. The recent agreement with the BBC and CNN opens a small window but is based upon the disingenuous claim that the BBC was never banned in the first place.
Until we hear from the government that journalists â€“â€“ both local and foreign â€“â€“ are free to enter and work in Zimbabwe, if necessary with ZMC accreditation, and that such accreditation will not be manipulated by officious government personnel as in the past, it is impossible to say there has been media reform.
Prime Minister Tsvangirai could do us all a favour in the meantime by not claiming there has been progress when there hasnâ€™t. He is currently having to publish his own newspaper precisely because there is no fair coverage of his party in the state media. Nor has there been any attempt to enforce professional standards including curbs on hate speech in the government press.
I regret that I cannot at the moment write to my colleagues in the Diaspora urging them to return home in the absence of any declaration regarding their status. Jomic appears to have gone to sleep after its initial media foray! This is a pity because there have been tentative moves by Unesco and others to convene a meeting of all editors including the Zimbabwe Association of Editors, which represents editors largely in the state sector, to explore areas of cooperation.
Meanwhile, we welcome the ministerâ€™s response to our concerns, however muted, and look forward to the lifting of media controls, the repeal of Aippa and the equally pernicious Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, and the issuing of licences to publishers and broadcasters.
At present we are not even halfway there. Charges against Zimbabwe Independent journalists Vincent Kahiya and Constantine Chimakure for publishing information contained in court documents, and therefore in the public domain, remain outstanding.
So do those brought against former Chronicle editor Brezhnev Malaba and reporter Nduduzo Tshuma for shining a spotlight on murky maize deals, and Standard editor Davison Maruziva for publishing an opinion piece by Arthur Mutambara that appears to have offended the powers that be â€“â€“ something any self-respecting journalist should arguably be doing!
Quite clearly the harassment of journalists persists. Democratic reform hinges on an outspoken press. The aim is a free media environment where a variety of voices contend. Only when that is achieved can voters make an informed choice at the polls.