The newspaper’s lawyer Eric Van Den Berg of Bell Dewar said the ZMC arrived at their decision on the basis of a faulty interpretation of Zimbabwean laws and unfounded allegations that the Sunday Times, which used to be distributed by the state-run Zimpapers, conducted business operations in the country through Munn Marketing.
Zimbabwean newspapers, including Zimpapers titles, circulate in South Africa and other countries in the region without restrictions.
Van Den Berg said ZMC was deliberately ignoring their correspondence on the matter, resorting to threats published in the Zimbabwean media against their distributing agents.
He said the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) was only intended to regulate mass media publishing and operating in the country as it clearly states that mass media owners can only register in Zimbabwe if a controlling interest in the company is held by Zimbabweans.
As such, no foreign publishers can register in Zimbabwe and for that reason Aippa cannot be used to sanction foreign newspapers like the Sunday Times, he argued.
“Indeed that appears to be apparent from part VII of Aippa. Clearly the Act does not have extra-territorial effect, and consequently cannot and does not regulate publishers of magazines or newspapers published in the rest of the world. “Consequently, as our client carries on business in South Africa it cannot and is not required to register in Zimbabwe as a mass media owner”, read the lawyer’s letter addressed to ZMC chairman Godfrey Majonga.
Van Den Berg dismissed allegations by the ZMC that the newspaper was involved in recruitment and payment of reporters in Zimbabwe through Munn Marketing and said the company merely distributes the Sunday Times in the country.
ZMC had used these allegations as the basis of their decision to compel the Sunday Times to open an office in the country and register in terms of Aippa.
The newspaper also accused the ZMC of deviating from its mandate of fostering freedoms of information and expression.
Van Den Berg said seeking to impose registration requirements on foreign publications “at a considerable cost in addition to taxes on the importation and sale of newspapers, without appropriate legislation, is unlikely to amount to a fulfilment of that mandate”.
The Sunday Times claimed the ZMC was motivated by political reasons, alleging the directive was only communicated to it and the UK-based The Zimbabwean. There are many other foreign newspapers and magazines being sold in Zimbabwe which have not been subjected to the same pressure. Content of the publications is determined by editors, not ZMC.
“This seems to reinforce the inference that your commission is targeting certain newspapers, as opposed to all publications, for political reasons,” Van Den Berg argued.
Zimbabwean lawyer Alec Muchadehama told the Zimbabwe Independent there was no section in Aippa which requires foreign newspapers to register and the ZMC was not empowered by any law to ban foreign newspapers and other publications.
“Newspapers like the Sunday Times are not produced in the country and do not need to be registered here. The paper is like any other product that is imported into the country like rice and subject to customs duty and that is all they need to pay”, he said.
Deputy Minister of Justice Jessie Majome concurred with the Sunday Times’ view that Aippa did not compel them to apply to open a representative office in Zimbabwe if they did not want to.
The paper’s lawyers threatened legal action and also warned they would approach the South African Ministry of International Relations and Co-operation if the ZMC interfered with its operations.