Chance for Moyo to repair the damage

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RESPONDING to questions from journalists seeking his view on the soundness of inclusive government principals’ appointments of Justice Rita Makarau and Jacob Mudenda to head the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, respectively, former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai retorted in defence of the move: “Who doesn’t have a history, we all have a history?”

Nhlanhla Ngwenya

Simply interpreted, to Tsvangirai these were professionals whose historical background and perspectives did not matter. Or the import of his argument could have been lost in translation.

But what is undeniable is that history shapes today and the future. It is for this reason that there is trepidation, doubts and uncertainty across the media divide following the re-appointment of Professor Jonathan Moyo as Information minister, which Information secretary George Charamba jokingly described as the “second coming”.

While those in the state media may be trembling over the likely reshuffles and expulsions, those in the private media should be wary of the acerbic attacks and arrests, which all characterised Moyo’s reign in the same ministry 10 years ago.

While in the wilderness following his expulsion from Zanu PF in 2005, Moyo was at pains to convince Zimbabweans that he was not responsible for the country’s media wasteland.

He attributed that to others in Zanu PF. He publicly restated his defence at the Quill Club while addressing journalists in the run-up to March 2008 elections.

Of course most did not believe him, but almost everyone wanted to forgive him. This followed an eloquent speech dissecting all what was wrong in Zanu PF and his projections for Zimbabwe, a presentation that cast Moyo in his element as a political scientist and not a government spin-doctor.

It became apparent that for all his rabid and sometimes unreasonable defence of Zanu PF’s controversial policies as its chief spinner, Moyo still had a rational side that viewed Zimbabwe through a logical lens.

Yes, indeed history matters! For all the carnage in the media sector that is fairly or unfairly traced to his time at the Ministry of Information between 2000 and 2005, Moyo should draw lessons from that epoch going forward.

He insinuated as much in his two meetings with media stakeholders held in Harare and Bulawayo in the last three weeks.

If his charm-offensive is to mean anything he should walk the talk.

The new constitution provides him with a starting point.

First and foremost Moyo should audit the country’s legislative framework to identify all the laws that impinge on freedom of expression and media freedom and are ultra vires provisions of the constitution, especially Sections 60, 61 and 62.

Whereas the old Lancaster House constitution provided latitude for authorities to erode citizens’ right to freedom of expression and access to information through its vague provisions and over-broad limitation clauses, the new charter explicitly guarantees these liberties.

It thereby enjoins those in authority to promote and safeguard those freedoms, within the broader new constitutional dispensation. Any other approach will be unconstitutional.

This means Moyo, as the new head of the Ministry of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services should spearhead the repeal or extensive amendment of laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), some of whose provisions can easily fail the new constitutional test and other regional instruments on freedom of expression and access to information.

The African Commission for Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) confirmed as much in its ruling in June 2009 in a case brought to it by Misa-Zimbabwe, the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights challenging provisions of Aippa. ACHPR ruled that government should align Aippa with Article 9 of the African Charter and other principles and international human rights instruments and further advised that there be legislation that would engender self-regulation of the media.

The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act is yet another law that should be revisited in order to revoke all provisions that continue to criminalise freedom of expression and free journalism enterprise.

This law, for example, continues to provide for criminal defamation, an archaic provision that most of the democratic world has taken off its statutes.

There is no reason why those aggrieved or hurt by other citizens’ speech or a media article should not seek redress through civil means available in the country. Having a law that makes it a crime to pass comments on the presidency, which are narrowly deemed unpalatable, will negate Moyo’s efforts to build bridges and inculcate a culture of tolerance of divergent views where citizens debate issues with civility.

There is a raft of other laws that also need review. These include the Broadcasting Services Act; the Interception of Communications Act; the Official Secrets Act; and the Censorship and Entertainment Controls Act, among others. Although some of the laws do not fall under his portfolio, he can still influence their revision for the good of the media and his legacy.

The administration of different acts that have a bearing on the media by separate ministries brings into question yet another matter that should be given due consideration; the convergence of the media regulatory framework.

It is crucial that as the country seeks to develop the media sector, fragments of the media legislative framework scattered across the country’s laws be brought under one roof to limit bureaucratic and administrative hindrances to diversifying the media space.

What immediately comes to mind is broadcasting regulation where two boards, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe and Post and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe, fall under separate ministries when they both play a critical role in the development of the sector.

Besides, while the constitution proscribes interference in the running of state media, the Ministry of Information should spearhead the formulation of an operating framework that would facilitate the transformation of ZBC into a genuine public broadcaster that is free from political abuse.

It is only then that perennial problems ––almost all of which emanate from excessive political controls –– that have plagued the broadcaster can be resolved. Such a framework should include an independent board appointed through a transparent parliamentary process as well as the hiring of bosses more loyal to professional values and principles than to political considerations.

As was generally agreed at the Harare meeting that Moyo convened, a professionally run ZBC would attract the most needed revenue both from advertisers and ordinary Zimbabweans by way of licence fees, which will help address its funding problems.

To entrench professionalism, ZBC needs robust competition. There is thus need to license more players in the sector including community broadcasters.

Successive governments have in the past argued that the limited number of frequencies was the main reason behind failure to license more players. Of course that simply passed as a lame excuse to justify an unacceptable state of affairs.

With the 2015 digital migration deadline fast approaching and the fast-paced technological advancements, limited frequencies can no longer be the scapegoat.

Thankfully, Moyo has already promised the nation that there will be more broadcasters soon.

However, transformation is not only about quantity but the means through which it is attained. This means there is need to put in place a licensing regime that is independent, transparent and free from controversy to avoid perceptions of political manipulation that mired the licensing of the two private national radio stations almost two years ago.

For over a decade now the country has witnessed extra-legal attacks on media houses and personnel with only a handful of arrests of those implicated in their prosecution.

It is important that as the ministry charts a new era, it speaks firmly against attacks on the media, mainly by political activists some of whom have been identified in the past but are still to be prosecuted for their crimes. That will go a long way in eliminating a culture of impunity enjoyed by those illegally eroding media freedom and access to information due to Zimbabweans.

Famous US Supreme Court judge Lewis F Powell Jr once said of history: “It teaches us tolerance for the human shortcomings and imperfections which are not uniquely of our generation, but of all time.”

The jury is still out and Zimbabwe awaits to see if Moyo is a good student of the past.

Ngwenya is the director of Misa Zimbabwe.

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