The decline is perhaps attributable to commitment by Zimbabwe’s leading political parties to democratise the media landscape following the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) which gave birth to the inclusive government.
However, political commitment alone will not suffice in securing an environment that fosters media diversity, pluralism and independence. This oft-repeated commitment — a year after the signing of the GPA in September 2008 — should be underpinned by extensive consultations with critical players towards policy formulation and implementation of the envisaged media reforms.
Without that, the existing repressive media laws will continue to receive piecemeal reforms that will in the final analysis pose an even greater threat to media freedom and freedom of expression.
Political commitment without requisite reforms will not curb the harassments of journalists. This is evidenced by the outstanding criminal cases against Vincent Kahiya, Constantine Chimakure and Davison Maruziva, editors with Zimind Publishers.
The other cases involve freelance journalist Andrisson Manyere and former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) bureau chief for Manicaland, Andrew Neshamba.
These four cases for which the journalists are charged with allegations of breaching the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act were still pending before the courts as of September 2009.
While the separate charges against Maruziva who is the editor of the weekly Standard newspaper, and Neshamba, pre-date the signing of the GPA, it is trite to note that Kahiya and Chimakure (editors with the Zimbabwe Independent), and Manyere were arrested and detained after the signing of the agreement despite pledges by the new government to foster media freedom and freedom of expression. Kahiya and Chimakure are being jointly charged with publishing or communicating falsehoods. Manyere is appearing on separate charges of banditry, terrorism and sabotage under the same law.
The fact that Maruziva is being jointly charged with Deputy Prime Minister Professor Arthur Mutambara — a signatory to the GPA — on the basis of an opinion piece penned by the latter which appeared in the Standard, speaks volumes about the undemocratic nature of Zimbabwe’s media and freedom of expression environment.
The two are being jointly charged with the publication of falsehoods in violation of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) and contempt of court in terms of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
This untenable situation is the result of the continued existence of repressive media laws compounded by the entrenched culture of intolerance to criticism, dissent and opposing views by the authorities, and the slow pace of envisaged media reforms.
Thus journalists and the citizens at large will continue to be haunted by the caged mentality arising from fear of falling foul of these laws, notably the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, Interception of Communications Act, Official Secrets Act and Censorship and Entertainment Act which impact negatively on media freedom, the free flow of information and access to information.
While the repealing of these laws might not necessarily result in the overnight curbing of media violations without the requisite and accompanying paradigm shift from the politics of hate and intolerance, the envisaged reforms will nevertheless mitigate against the same, and chart Zimbabwe towards a new democratic dispensation and reaffirm its pride of place among other progressive nations.
The first step towards that eventuality entails fulfilling the obligations of the GPA, more so as it pertains to its Article 19 on Freedom of Expression and Communication.
Under Article 19.1 of the agreement, the parties agreed among other issues 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 (BSA) as well as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Sadly, this is still to materialise a year after the signing of the agreement. The media environment remains restricted with no new private players licensed to enter both the print and broadcasting sector in an environment in which the ZBC continues to enjoy monopoly of the airwaves. While the government pledged to process application for re-registration and registration of media houses, this might not be immediately achievable given the restrictive nature of the licensing regime, more so in the context of the restrictive provisions of the BSA.
Misa-Zimbabwe is of the firm view that this restricted media environment in so far as it pertains to media diversity, pluralism and independence ostensibly arises from the absence of a constitutional provision that explicitly guarantees media freedom as this leaves room for the enactment and continued existence of restrictive legislation such as Aippa, the BSA, Official Secrets Act and the Interception of Communications Act, among others.
The answer therefore lies in repealing of these restrictive laws; entrenchment of media self-regulation as demonstrated by Zimbabwean journalists when they established the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe, as well as transformation of ZBC into a truly independent public broadcaster.
The quest for a free media environment should therefore be underpinned by a constitutional provision that explicitly guarantees media freedom and the establishment of an independent broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory authority as espoused under the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, Banjul Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression and African Charter on Broadcasting, among others.
Political commitments to free the media environment should therefore be backed by extensive consultations and engagement on the task at hand every step of the way towards meaningful and sustainable media reforms.
Nyasha Nyakunu is the Senior Programmes Officer with Misa-Zimbabwe.
By Nyasha Nyakunu