Editor’s Memo: Media freedom: time to walk the talk

MEDIA freedom is not only a fundamental right but also a basic necessity for a multi-party democracy to thrive and blossom.

President Robert Mugabe was dead right last Thursday when he told editors from various stables of the need for an open media if the inalienable right to a free press is to be upheld.

Mugabe’s words on the media should now be put into action as a matter of urgency to exhibit his government’s sincerity on reforms and to build a nation whose foundation is copper-bottomed in an unfettered press.

The first step is for the newly constituted Zimbabwe Media Commission to immediately set up shop. It needs to have a secretariat and start issuing newspaper licences to applicants who have waited patiently to launch new media houses.

The country’s electronic media has been dominated by the publicly-owned, but state-controlled, ZBC since Independence and it’s now time that the monopoly came to an end.

The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) should issue broadcasting licences to private players for plurality in the airwaves. The country desperately needs more radio and television stations to educate, inform and entertain the public for the betterment of the nation.

Issuing of electronic media licences should only be done after the BAZ board has been reconstituted to get rid of media hangmen like Tafataona Mahoso who currently chairs it. It is common cause what Mahoso did to the print media over the last decade, and a person of such disposition should not be allowed near any institution to do with the media. It was refreshing to hear Mugabe saying his government would reconstitute the BAZ board if it was appointed un-procedurally.

It is my hope that the MDC formations will soon table this issue before cabinet for its redress.

Government should also immediately abrogate or amend draconian laws that unduly restrict media freedom and plurality, among them the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Public Order and Security Act, Broadcasting Services Act, Official Secrets Act, Prisons Act, Censorship and Control of Entertainments Act, Courts and Adjudicating Authorities (Public Restrictions) Act, the Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act, and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

The law of criminal defamation with its charge of publishing “falsehoods” continues to have a chilling effect on media freedom and should be abrogated. It has been repealed in many Commonwealth jurisdictions where courts have found it inimical to democratic freedom.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa — Zimbabwe chapter — and many media organisations and journalists have over the years complained bitterly about criminal defamation laws which they said were ill defined and because of their ambiguity discourage “the media from criticising government ministers and policies, or the expression of political dissent”.

Journalists have argued that civil law provides adequate redress in case of defamation.

While it was welcome that Mugabe said “arresting a journalist just because (he or) she has written something you dislike is wrong”, journalists should have asked the octogenarian president why he did not cause the release of scribes arrested on flimsy grounds over the years.

If Mugabe does not subscribe to the apprehending of journalists, who has been giving orders for their arrest? Why has he been quiet all along about the issue?

When I was arrested with my then editor Vincent Kahiya last May, we learnt from co-Home Affairs minister Giles Mutsekwa that the order to apprehend us did not come from him or the Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri.

Mutsekwa told parliament that it came from none other than Attorney-General Johannes Tomana, whom he said has been asked for a report on the matter. Up to now the report is yet to be tabled in parliament.
As from last Thursday, we are going to hold Mugabe to his word.

It is clear that there are elements in Mugabe’s government whose job is to undermine and stifle the media. They do not want the media to play its oversight role on the three arms of the state — the executive, legislature and the judiciary. The guilty are understandably afraid of the prying eyes of the media.

The constitution-making process should result in a supreme law that guarantees unfettered media freedom, not the current situation where press liberty is implicitly guaranteed under Section 20, the general freedom of expression clause. There can be no democratic progress without root-and-branch media reform. The president has opened the way.

 

Constantine Chimakure

Independent Editor

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