‘Press freedom not alien concept’

The following is an edited version of the keynote address by the Ambassador of Sweden to Zimbabwe, Sten Rylander, on Monday at the Zimbabwe Independent/Standard new product launch.

IT is an honour and a great pleasure for me to have been asked to speak at this historic launch of your new product, which is soon to emerge on the Zimbabwean market. Undoubtedly, licensing of NewsDay will mark the dawn of a new era, a new Zimbabwe.

The last independent daily we remember folded some five years ago! So today is a day of joy and celebration, although you have not yet reached the finishing line. What we can celebrate is the fact that we hold a first full dummy copy of NewsDay in our hands this morning.

Colleagues and Friends, Sweden has an admired tradition of freedom of the press in the world today dating back to the 1766 Freedom of the Press Act. Our current work with media is ultimately founded on the rights of the individual, the right to freedom of expression, the right to knowledge, the right to transform knowledge into action and the right to freedom from poverty.

This year our government made an important decision to increase even further the focus on and support to democracy and freedom of expression. We view today’s new product launch as an important signal of information liberalisation in Zimbabwe, and as part of a strategy to help counter the current knowledge deficit, which is an obstacle to poverty alleviation.

Together with so many others we are interested in how the inclusive government deals with the media and how the media covers the progress of the inclusive government, as this has an impact on the lives of ordinary people — in Zimbabwe as well as in the region.

As I have often said in other fora, Press freedom is not an alien concept; and it is certainly not an imposition by the so-called West. It has strong roots in Southern Africa — with one of the best media guidelines having been produced in Namibia almost 20 years ago.

Despite the adoption of commendable declarations, monopolies continue to exist in some countries, not least in Zimbabwe, which still has a single national broadcaster contrary to the objectives espoused in its broadcasting laws. There have also been documented cases of freedom of the press violations in most countries in the region and unfortunately Zimbabwe has not been an exception.

My government strongly supports the freedom of expression and the media worldwide. In Zimbabwe Sweden has provided generous support to Misa and to the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ).

VMCZ has been inspired to a large extent by the very successful experiences of the Media Council in Tanzania, which I cooperated with closely during my previous posting in Tanzania.

The aim of the VMCZ is to establish an effective system for professional self-regulation of the media under the strong belief that self-regulation, rather than state regulation, is the best system for promoting high standards of professionalism and ethical behaviour in the media.

We believe that the VMCZ has the capacity to regulate the work of journalists; deal with the enforcement of the code of conduct by handling media complaints and also accreditation of journalists. We also support various other media initiatives, as well as training of media practitioners.

We align ourselves with all on-going efforts by the international community and local stakeholders to support the growth and development of a free and professional media in Zimbabwe.

As the Swedish Embassy we were pleased to note that at this year’s Njama awards there was a new breed of independent journalists in Zimbabwe who are blazing the trail towards press freedom. Njama awards have become an exciting part of the media calendar and are an effective way to support the journalistic world and promote high standards of journalism in the country.

In Zimbabwe we presently seek to follow closely the implementation of the Global Political Agreement (GPA). And the opening up of the media environment is one of the key issues that we are observing in this context.

This is also closely linked to the resumed dialogue (under Article 8 of the EU-ACP Cotonou Agreement) between the EU and the Zimbabwean government aimed at normalised relations. Clearly, an open and vibrant media will be important in order to highlight and communicate the progress of the inclusive government as the country moves towards re-engagement with the international community.

Only two weeks ago a high-level EU Troika Delegation — lead by the Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Gunilla Carlsson — visited Zimbabwe and had constructive discussions with the three principals in the inclusive government.

 

As we see it, it was a good and positive visit — giving new momentum to the dialogue process towards re-engagement. Indeed, we can build on this visit in order to make progress in the on-going dialogue efforts. This positive assessment stands in stark contrast to what we can read in the one and only daily newspaper that is there at the moment. This is how the EU visit was summarised on prominent page five of the Herald the other day:

“It was high sounding, but signifying nothing more than provocative political posturing.  It was nothing but a self-fulfilment and egoistical trip by a collection of destruction-inspired political forces and glory-seeking political pretenders in search of mileage to assess the impact made possible by their equally destruction-inspired offspring — sanctions — on greatly oppressed and wronged souls of Zimbabwe — nothing more and nothing less.”

The quote speaks for itself. One can only pity those who prefer to concentrate on negatively spinned communication and who fail to understand what needs to be done to move forwards in a positive direction.

The international community and indeed Zimbabweans are closely monitoring the media environment expecting an end to the suppression of the free flow of information as an indicator of the success of the inclusive government.

Article 19 of the GPA, signed by the three political parties, recognises the importance of the right to freedom of expression and the role of the media in a multi-party democracy. The implementation of the GPA in general and the adherence to the Article dealing with media in particular is a litmus test on the sincerity of the inclusive government to usher in a new era of unity, freedom and work.

The GPA notes that while the provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act permit the issuance of licenses, to date no licenses other than to the public broadcaster have been issued. We will continue to urge the government to urgently open up the airwaves to allow for the operation of “as many media houses as possible” to directly quote from the GPA.

An essential first step could be to open the airwaves for community radio stations. As Sweden we support the establishment of community radios; and we believe that the absence of community-based radios hinders development and poverty reduction efforts.

Community radios could be playing a crucial role in terms of informing the ordinary people, especially in rural and marginal areas, on the progress of the inclusive government and on other key national issues like national healing and the constitutional making process, as well as the fight against HIV/Aids and cholera.

The parties to the GPA agreed that the government should 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.

We urge the government to do this and go even further to allow Parliament — in consultation with all media players — to discuss these Acts to determine if they aid media freedom; and if not, amend or repeal parts of these laws which are not in line with the spirit of the inclusive government or in line with key regional media declarations. It is important for government to come up with legislation that will open up the media landscape and help facilitate the implementation of the GPA.