GOVERNMENT has threatened to shut down NewsDay, sister publication to the Zimbabwe Independent, if it hits the streets without registration, despite lack of clarity and controversy over the current licensing procedure.George Charamba (pictured), Media, Information and publicity permanent secretary, this week told editors during a Unesco-sponsored dialogue that the state would stop new players from publishing until ongoing media reforms are completed.
Charamba said the High Court ruling nullifying the existence of the Media and Information Commission does not preclude the ministry from demanding licences from new players.
“What that judgment cannot do is to stop the ministry from visiting a publication that is on the street to ask it to produce its licence,” said Charamba. “That we will do without fear or favour — get it from me because you will be breaking the law. That we will definitely do.
“If you find yourself on the street without proper registration, ahh, you are inviting us and we will react instantly.”
He added: “We have a very funny situation where Barnabas (Thondhlana — editor- designate of NewsDay) should be editing a paper but can’t do it because there is no registering authority. And certainly he knows that if he goes on the street asina (without) registration, Charamba will be on him.”
He said the creation of ZMC “implies an enabling law which is not yet in place”. He said new titles could still publish before the enactment of the law but not before the issuance of licences.
“Barnabas, if you start publishing without a registration, you will be in breach of the law,” he said. “What we will do is to go to the police and say there is a foreigner on the street, can you get his credentials and they will come to you and ask you ‘where is your registration’? If it is nowhere to be found, naturally the police will take up the matter and ask the AG to prosecute.”
Following the formation of an inclusive government between President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his deputy Arthur Mutambara, publishers were hopeful that new publications would be established against a backdrop of restrictive media laws.
But since the proposed plans to open media space, only the government-controlled Zimpapers group has been granted a licence to run a new daily, the H-Metro.
Referring to a High Court order that nullified the existence of the Media and Information Commission, Charamba said the ministry would continue to monitor the press.
“All the pieces of law that were made by way of amending the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and creating constitutional amendment Number 19 did not kill off the Media and Information Commission. The only one that came close to killing off MIC was constitutional amendment No 19 which meant essentially MIC was there,” Charamba said.
Charamba said the current transitional period of shifting the registration mandate from the MIC to the soon-to-be established Zimbabwe Media Commission had created a “funny situation”.
“We have a very funny situation where Barnabas (Thondhlana) should be editing a paper but can’t do it because there is no registering authority. Again you have another problem Barnabas, ZMC implies an enabling law which is not yet in place.”
He said the ZMC will come into being together with three other constitutional commissions — Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission — are put in place.
The Ministry of Media, Charamba claimed, “checked” with the Attorney-General’s Office whether there were any “loopholes” that could expedite the publication of new newspapers but the government legal advisor dismissed that possibility. His ministry, he said, was “uncomfortable” with the present situation.
Despite this development, Charamba said he was not “hopeless” that the new publication would hit the street given the “quick march” in establishing the media commission.
“It won’t be long before you get your registration”, he said.
Charamba’s remarks have however attracted a flurry of reactions from within government.
Deputy Media, Information and Publicity minister Jameson Timba said: “Zimbabwe is not a police state. It is not the policy of this government that its employees go around threatening citizens with arrest for imagined crimes.
“The alleged remarks and threats by Secretary Charamba to cause the arrest of Editors of NewsDay are not only unfortunate and regrettable but do not represent government policy and are not in keeping with the Zimbabwe the three political parties in government have committed to create.”
Meanwhile, DPM Athur Mutambara has said the appointments of boards under the Media, Information and Publicity ministry by Minister Webster Shamu would be reversed because they were irregular and unprocedural.
“Those appointments are null and void,” Mutambara said in an interview on BBC’s Hardtalk yesterday. “The cabinet was not consulted, the prime minister was not consulted… We are going to reverse them.”
Zimbabwe Journalists for Human Rights have also slammed Shamu for appointing retired army officers. To date Shamu has appointed two retired brigadier-generals and one retired major-general to the ZBH board and at least another two retired senior army officers to other boards.
“Why should the military and war veterans be entrusted with the national media?” reads a statement issued by the ZJHR.
“Surely the country is not at war with anybody that government sees it fit to militarise civil organisations. Instead of bringing guns and bayonets to the media, the government should be allowing closed newspapers to open and independent television stations and radios to open. The government should be busy promoting freedom of the press by allowing new players to come in.”
The pressure group also threatened legal action against “illegalities associated with the running of the Zimpapers newspaper group”.
“It is also the view of ZJHR that media hangman, Tafataona Mahoso, who presided over the closure of at least five newspapers and who denied licences to more media houses, is not fit to head the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe Board (BAZ). His appointment is an indication that the government is not interested in the democratisation and opening up of the airwaves.”-Staff Writer