The licensing of the newspapers by a regime that abhors the slightest sign of freedom heralded a new era in the public sphere. Without sounding like spoil-sports, there is need to be cautious in the celebrations because opening up the public sphere does not end with the mere granting of licences.
There is an obvious need to deal with restrictive laws that have turned the craft of journalism into a landmine field. Laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act, Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, Official Secrets Acts and Interception of Communications Act need to be repealed forthwith in order to create the desirable environment.
Yesterday, Alpha Media Holdings staffers Constantine Chimakure and Vincent Kahiya were at the Supreme Court charged under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act with publishing falsehoods. These media practitioners are one example of the persecution of journalists and publishers that does not bode well for media freedom.
Entrepreneurs who were granted their licences should also be cautious because the success of newspapers does not depend on an enabling legal environment alone. The number of newspapers that were licensed begs the question of whether Zimbabwe’s economy is big enough to sustain so many media outlets. Questions abound on the sustainability of operations, especially when one looks at the advertising market and the low disposable income that characterise the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans. Concern over market issues are more worrying when one considers that there are donor-funded newspapers that will have an unfair advantage on the market. Donor- funded news media only need to publish. They are not subject to market forces.
Journalists also need to do some soul-searching now that the authorities have played their part by licensing publications. Journalists lending themselves to manipulation by powerful interests in society are some of the scourges that media practitioners need to guard against. It is pointless for journalists to complain that the government is muzzling their voices when they are guilty of the same crime of constricting the public sphere.
Notwithstanding the issues that pose a hazard to media freedom, it is important to celebrate the licensing of new newspapers for widening the choices that readers have. Readers have for a long time relied on media houses pursuing sectional interests. However, the situation has changed because now newspapers will be judged everyday by a readership that votes with its money. In the absence of harassment of journalists and vendors, only the market will determine the fate of players. Publications that do not adhere to conventional journalism standards and practice will be judged harshly by the market.
It is refreshing to note that there is general consensus in the country that there should be more players on the market, based on the recent licensing of newspapers. That consensus should now cascade to other areas that will ensure that the new publications make a meaningful contribution to society. That can only be achieved if journalists commit themselves to professionalism and the government forges ahead with a reform agenda that includes the repeal of repressive laws.