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Media reform: Zim needs own Jefferson

THE third US President, Thomas Jefferson, is renowned for saying: “If it were left on me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”.

Opinion by Nhlanhla Ngwenya

This from a man who experienced one of the worst abuses by the media which bordered on the slanderous during his reign.

Despite a series of fabrications about his personal life by disgruntled members of the press, never did he use his most powerful position to silence them, but instead defended their right to exist.

Those that hate free expression will habitually parry this example on the grounds that Zimbabwe is not the US and “we do things differently here”, or “our democracy is still young”, and other manner of flimsy excuses.

But nearly four years after the inauguration of the coalition government which was accompanied by promises of democratic reforms, there is still very little to show as concrete deliverables of the reform agenda.

Save for the licensing of publications, including private newspapers, the controversial awarding of licences to two commercial private radio stations and the calling of applications for 14 provincial commercial radio licences, nothing significant has been achieved when measured against the Global Political Agreement (GPA) — precursor to the unity government — and several pledges made at various fora.

The same infrastructure of repression steeped in dictatorial media legislative framework and superintended over by paranoiac enemies of free press still exists, threatening the sustainability of the very newly licensed players.

While Sadc has expressed its disapproval of the authorities’ slow-paced reforms, this has not deterred those who hate the free press from abusing their control of law enforcement agents to selectively arrest journalists from the private media in a bid to intimidate them into turning a blind eye to authorities’ excesses.

With news of a breakthrough in the constitution-making process filtering through, it is hoped there was no major tinkering with sections in the July 2012 draft document, which sought to sufficiently protect free expression and explicitly guarantee freedom of the media and access to information.

It is only through such safeguards that the country’s media can be liberated from debilitating state clutches as well as unwarranted abuse by those in power.

However, such clauses can only be meaningful if there is political will to genuinely democratise the media space, regardless of one’s attitude towards the media.

One of the main professional hazards of assuming public office is scrutiny that transcends what would ordinarily be private space for an ordinary member of the public. Those that seek public office should therefore develop thick skins because as long as they hold such office the media will rummage through their public and private lives.

That’s not personal; it’s precisely the role of the media!
The coalition government’s approach to the media has not demonstrated much desire to protect media space. Neither has it displayed the requisite will to transform the media, which creates doubts on what the future holds for the media in the country.

For instance, except for isolated calls for media reforms by a few individuals such as MP Settlement Chikwinya and the late deputy Agriculture minister Seiso Moyo, none of the MDC formations have put up a spirited fight on the matter.

Instead, they have subordinated the fight for free media space to their quest for power. The argument has been that once they gain political power everything will fall into place. But this is not necessarily true and betrays lack of understanding on the indispensability of the media in the enjoyment of all civil liberties.

History is littered with examples where those that cast themselves as unwavering democrats while seeking political power turned out to be the complete opposite once in office.

Without delving into a history lecture, post-colonial Zimbabwe is a perfect example.

Despite all promises of democratic reforms anchored on unpleasant treatment of nationalists and liberation fighters by the colonial media, no significant changes were made to the country’s media after Independence save for change of hands of control. In fact, it took the country 20 years for ZBC’s broadcasting monopoly to be struck off the country’s statutes.

Even then, it was after a citizen had taken the authorities to court on the matter. To this day, the broadcaster is still shackled to state controls and operates on the whims and caprices of its Zanu PF masters in government.

Resultantly, it has covered and interpreted the Zimbabwean story only from the partisan lens of its masters while labelling those opposing them as ideologically bankrupt and appendages of imperial forces.

In spite of all the abuse the MDC formations have suffered through the broadcaster, they have hardly pushed for comprehensive overhaul of the broadcaster’s governance and management structures to insulate it from political manipulation and turn it into a genuine public broadcaster that reflected all shades of Zimbabwean opinion. Oddly, about two years ago, the MDCs agreed to an inexplicable formula for the appointment of the ZBC board as a way of reforming the broadcaster.

Besides betraying their desire to equitably abuse the broadcaster, the move underlined lack of understanding of the role of a public broadcaster and how to protect its independence.

This is also demonstrated in the July 2012 draft constitution where the parties actually entrenched state control of the media.
Further, following the controversial licensing of two national radio stations there was no attempt to expose the licensing authorities’ claims that the two frequencies were finite and the country couldn’t license any more aspiring national broadcasters.

It is a fact that although the country only had two free national radio frequencies, it can still expand the spectrum by simply applying to the International Telecommunication Union for additional frequencies.

No concerted efforts have been made to ensure this is done as well as the licensing of community radio stations.

It is not only in the broadcasting sector that the parties have demonstrated neglect. The laws that beset the media and imposed severe restrictions to free journalism enterprise before the formation of the coalition government exist and continue to be used to control free media activity in the country.

After promises of media reforms following the Kariba Media Conference of 2009, at which clear recommendations were made with regards reforming the media sector, there has been deafening silence on progress. The nearest that Zimbabweans were informed about the matter was when President Robert Mugabe announced that a Media Practitioners’ Bill, which was one of the Kariba recommendations, would be part of parliament’s legislative agenda in 2011. However, nothing happened on that score.

Isolated motions on the need to repeal media laws have also been made to no effect. And as Chikwinya seeks to push for the replacement of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act with a freedom of information law, the effort may be coming too late as it is doubtful the move will succeed given the imminence of elections and its ramifications on all efforts aimed at democratising the space.

Clearly, our own Jefferson has been missing in the last four years of the inclusive government!

Ngwenya is director of Misa-Zimbabwe.

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