Media reforms under Zanu PF an illusion

It would be more surprising that those who have followed Zanu PF government’s media policy would find the Sunday Mail (April 10 2016) report on authorities’ plans to regulate social media as shocking. This is particularly so given that throughout its reign, Zanu PF has never been coy of the fact that its attitude towards media is a function of real and perceived threats to its stranglehold on power. And with the party facing so many challenges internally, through factionalism, and externally, due to debilitating economic decline and regrouping of opposition parties, it is obvious Zanu PF would resort to its default mode and re-open its armoury of media repression at its disposal.

Nhlanhla Ngwenya,Media activist

All because the ruling party genetically perceives the media as a political rival and not a messenger and a sphere of divergent thoughts necessary for entrenching participatory and accountable democracy. To the party, the media are simply tools for manufacturing consent and to cement its hegemony through peddling political mantras, stereotypes and uncritical assumptions.

It is for this reason that while Information minister Christopher Mushohwe joins a league of the most visible information supremos of recent past, his actions with regards democratic media reforms have so far been less than helpful. He has been more noticeable for his “urging” statements calling on the media to be professional, which is increasingly becoming clear it’s a euphemism for uncritical regurgitation and amplification of government’s narratives. His remarks would easily be viewed in the realm of banality were it not for their telling signs of government’s attitude on media democratisation as well as the substance and form of its planned media policy and law reforms.

Almost three years after the country adopted a new constitution that expressly guarantees freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information, Zimbabweans are still fed on more rhetoric, less action on reforms, ambiguous promises and no delivery. This contrasts sharply with the verve the Ministry of Information re-launched itself post-2013 elections under Jonathan Moyo.

With Zanu PF triumphant and its main rival, the MDC parties, almost vanquished after July 2013, the ministry called for a meeting with media stakeholders on September 20 that year in an effort to try and bridge the gap as well as build consensus among various players on how to address fundamental issues plaguing the media and information sector. Subsequent to that meeting, the ministry then set up the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (Impi) to look into problems afflicting the media and recommend ways of addressing them. It is from the work of Impi that government had pledged to anchor its media reform agenda guided by the new constitution.

Amid all the controversies that surrounded the panel that ranged from issues of legitimacy, representation and autonomy, the panel managed to produce its report and publicly submitted it to government on March 18 2015. The breath of a new era that initially appeared an illusion was then seemingly a reality on the horizon.

But like many other such previous initiatives, it is increasingly becoming clear all this was yet another sleight of hand that government has perfected in deflecting pressure when called upon to act on its obligations and responsibilities. Apart from isolated references to Impi, there is nothing on the ground that demonstrates government is serious on media reforms. In the few cases that the Impi process has been mentioned, it is either in the context of seeking to scare media stakeholders from congregating around the findings or simply asserting government’s ownership of the report and thus the only one entitled to lead discussions on the contents.

While the media grudgingly conceded to government’s rationale that it would be important to first allow the Impi process to run through its course in order to ground the media laws review — all for the sake of demonstrating that sometimes compromise and not capitulation is of strategic value — there is no publicly available evidence to show government has or is using the document in the laws re-alignment and reform process.

In fact, whereas other ministries have reportedly submitted their proposals to the inter-ministerial committee of laws re-alignment headed by the Ministry of Justice, nothing has been put on the table by the Information ministry, at least by the time of writing this article.

A hint of what the ministry intends to do came by way of parliamentary engagement of the Information ministry permanent secretary on his ministry’s plans on media development. Addressing parliamentarians on February 18 2016, Information ministry permanent secretary George Charamba announced that government would soon review the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Broadcasting Services Act and also enact a content production legislation.

Although commendable, Zimbabweans in general and the media in particular were left none-the-wiser on the content of the reviews, timelines, and why only two laws have been selected and not a whole gamut of Acts identified in the Impi report and in other position papers submitted to government by civil society.

Stitching together government pronouncements in reaction to private media’s reportage of factional fighting in Zanu PF would help answer some of the questions. On September 15 2015, for example, President Robert Mugabe warned journalists against what he viewed as unprofessional conduct, threatening his government would take “rigid control” and the media “should not cry foul” when that happened. This followed private media’s exposures of Zanu PF infighting, which the party wanted bottled up. His remarks seemed to put the Information ministry on cue, with both the minister and his secretary subsequently amplifying the threat with no restraint.

On October 11 2015, Charamba was reported in the Sunday Mail also expressing his displeasure with the private media’s coverage of Zanu PF factionalism saying he would recommend a piece of legislation that would restrain rather than enable media practice in the country. Quite unbothered by the constitutional safeguards for media freedom, he warned: “And please don’t cry wolf. Don’t feel unfairly treated when the hammer descends on you …”

Three months later, Charamba’s boss Mushohwe would give a glimpse of broadcasting reforms government has in mind. He called on the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe to draft a new Bill that would “deal” with exiled broadcasters who are beaming into Zimbabwe, saying the country should have such a law “like yesterday” to protect its territory.

It is therefore clear that the reforms and the laws that government has identified for review are not predicated on the desire to holistically overhaul the media legislative regime, but cherry pick laws that would give government intentions to further tighten its controls some veneer of legitimacy. Whether that corresponds with the constitution appears not to be an issue for the ruling government.

Not only is government giving hints of its obsessive media controls through legislation, but it is also demonstrating its quest to entrench its authority by expanding the media it runs, directly or via proxies.

Otherwise, how can it justify that it seeks to run six of the 12 television channels to be created by the ongoing digitisation programme, when it already enjoys the bigger share of the media market?

Against these developments and as the country draws closer to elections, contentions that the country’s media struggles were won through the adoption of a new constitution, are misplaced, misinformed and clearly out of sync with the Zanu PF government’s psyche on the media. It is politics, stupid!

Ngwenya is the executive director of Misa Zimbabwe.