AT the heart of liberal democratic governance and journalism lies the principle of self-regulation and consequently the existence of the free press.
Where state regulation is imposed on the media as is the case in Zimbabwe, it becomes the hallmark of authoritarianism. Media practitioners must resist this while offering plausible alternative frameworks.
Historically, apart from security laws such as the repealed Law and Order Maintenance Act, the State of Emergence powers discarded in 1990, the Official Secrets Act, Public Order and Security Act as well as defamation and libel laws, there were no laws specifically crafted to regulate the media until 2000.
Only the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Act, a relic of colonialism, was fashioned specifically for regulating the airwaves to maintain the monopoly of the state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, formerly Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation.
In the area of the print media, before the introduction of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, newspapers would only register with the General Post Office without any restrictions.
The political and socio-economic situation, particularly the crisis of the late 1990s and consequently the emergence of an organised civil society under the leadership of the National Constitutional Assembly, which brought together labour, women and student groups as well as the eventual formation of the Movement for Democratic Change, fundamentally changed state-media relations.
Newspapers such as the Standard, the Independent, Financial Gazette and the Daily News helped to marshall, give form and coalesce all these disparate groups fighting for democratic reforms. These newspapers, among other sources of information and news, also gave the groups above alternative platforms and voices to channel their discontent against the government led by the Zanu PF.
In response, Zanu PF responded by building an arsenal of security and media laws to regulate the media with a view to maintaining cohesive and consensual leadership which was being eroded by the forces of civil and political activism that used the privately-owned media as the launching pad, besides other means of expressing discontent.
It is critical therefore to note the current debates on statutory media regulation is not new at all. What is happening under the recently established Zimbabwe Media Council is an entrenchment of the media regulatory framework by the state that is very undesirable in a society trying to go through a transition to democracy.
Past experiences through the work of the now defunct Media and Information Commission lead us to believe state media regulation has a chilling effect on journalism and journalists, thus limiting free flow of information and news. Arrests, harassment of journalists and closure of newspapers became part of the state’s reaction to the rising tide of discontent and demands for democratic reform and change.
The limited democratic space and environment currently prevailing in Zimbabwe is a result of decades of struggles for freedom of expression by forces of change, with national newspapers such as the Independent, Daily News, Financial Gazette and Standard, as well as magazines like the now defunct Parade, Moto and Horizon, leading the campaign for democracy, at least at the level of ideas and debate.
That is why the state has responded viciously with repressive media and security laws calculated to frustrate democratic reform and change.
What is now needed is an organised thought leadership in the media. Subcontracting leadership, sometimes to impostors and gatecrashers, will not help much as some of these intruders are just driven by economic, not professional, interests.
It is ironic statutory media regulation has been enacted by the inclusive government to serve the political interests of the elite, not the professional and ethical demands of the media. Media self-regulation in Zimbabwe should be built around the promotion of ethical codes by the journalists themselves, not by a self-serving norm-violating regime allergic to democratic reform.
In democratising countries, media self-regulation could be the solution and counter proposal to the blatant state interference in the operations of the media. This model has been regarded as a vehicle of fostering media professionalism by the journalists themselves.
This kind of self-regulation requires lobbying MPs and the executive branch to craft such a regulatory framework. Should that fail, then the media must just have self-regulation.
In Western democracies, self-regulatory codes first emerged in the first decade of the 20th Century in Poland and the United States as part of general moves towards professionalisation of the media by journalists themselves.
In Europe, such codes were adopted gradually after World War I in UK, Sweden and France. In the case of the US, many newspapers have their own customised codes, watched over by an ombudsman (Alpha Media recently appointed one, the first such initiative in Zimbabwe).
Apart from the UK, where self-regulation has failed in many respects, there are many other examples of models to look into, for instance, the Netherlands, Germany and Norwegian frameworks. This is a critical call for editorial independence and thought leadership that is glaringly lacking in Zimbabwe.
Ruhanya is a PhD candidate and director of Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.