The move is seen as a renewed attempt to come up with new instruments to suppress press freedom. Journalists in Zimbabwe have been subjected to systematic repression over the years.
Of late there have been renewed threats to clamp down on the media by banning foreign newspapers — which President Robert Mugabe’s diehards do not like — from entering the Zimbabwean market, even though local papers circulate freely in neighbouring countries.
The banning of newspapers from the region, especially from South Africa, is likely to trigger a diplomatic quarrel as that would amount to unfair trade practices. Newspapers are treated as any other product, paying necessary taxes and duties.
ZMC chairperson Godfrey Majonga said yesterday the process of setting up a media council started early last year but there has been “some resistance” from other stakeholders.
“The media commission is consulting various stakeholders that include journalists, churches, advertisers and Law Society of Zimbabwe, among others,” he said. “We are getting resistance from some stakeholders but we are hoping that with the passage of time they will become involved so that the media council is inclusive.”
Zanu PF politicians have been pressuring ZMC to crackdown on the private media and ban foreign newspapers. ZMC is trying to force foreign newspapers to register with it, a move deemed unlawful as this is tantamount to applying Zimbabwe’s laws extra-territorially.
The private media has already established the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) to deal with complaints against journalists.
The move to establish a statutory body — which is a counter to VMCZ — to police the media is likely to have a chilling effect on the media. It would also be a dreadful gift to journalists during this year’s World Press Freedom Day next week.
The United Nations General Assembly declared May 3 World Press Freedom Day to raise awareness on the importance of freedom of the press, and remind governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and marking the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration — a statement on free press principles put together by African journalists in 1991.
Media analysts say the media council would be used as a weapon against journalists.
Sources said the watchdog would consist of 13 members from across the political divide, business, religious and civic society to give it a semblance of legitimacy. State-run broadcaster ZBC and public-owned newspaper group, Zimpapers, are among the organisations allegedly lining up to help enemies of the media to assault press freedom and bludgeon journalists.
As a result the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) and private media are not party to the media council. MAZ includes organisations like the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (Zinef), Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, Federation of African Media Women of Zimbabwe and African Community Publishing.
MAZ says there is no need for a statutory media council because VMCZ, whose mandate is to promote a professional and free media environment through voluntary self-regulation, is already there.
MAZ coordinator Patience Zirima said even if ZMC goes ahead with establishing a statutory media council, her organisation would not take part.
“We believe we don’t need a statutory media council,” said Zirima. “We will always support a voluntary media council. The statutory media council is not an appropriate body in a democratic society. We don’t need it. Media should be allowed to regulate themselves. Next week Zimbabwe celebrates World Press Freedom Day but it will be a sad day for the media here given such developments.”
Zinef chairman Brian Mangwende described the move to police the media through a statutory body as “undemocratic and sinister”.
“The move by the ZMC to constitute a statutory media council in terms of the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act is patently undemocratic and designed to asphyxiate freedom of the press and broadly freedom of expression,” he said. “That initiative is open to abuse by politicians with hidden agendas against the press and by media ZMC hangmen who want to trample on our constitutional freedoms, criminalise the profession and strangulate journalists.”
Journalists are expected to widely denounce the ZMC plan during Press Freedom Day.