Govt stifles Zim’s media landscape?

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Admire Kudita

Government gazetted the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill in August this year as part of its media law reform agenda. It affects us directly here and would be thus remiss not to share our views.

As the media parliamentary portfolio committee tours the country to get feedback from citizens on the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill, journalists and citizens alike expressed their objections to provisions of the Bill, which they said sought to entrench statutory regulation of the media in the country.

I was following the proceedings and essentially in my view, the current Bill is contrary to the government’s 2018 pledge to reform the media laws and widen the media field. Despite consultative meetings with stakeholders, the Bill falls far short of expectations. The governed must feel they have a stake in government.

Feedback

At the Bulawayo public hearings, stakeholders’ main critique of the Bill was that the legislation neglects proposals and recommendations that were submitted by civil society and media freedom activists to the Information Ministry. None of the key recommendations such as decriminalisation of the media profession, the recognition of self-regulation as part of a co-regulation model for Zimbabwean media and removal of political interference in ZMC operations as submitted by civil society and media stakeholders to the ministry were incorporated into the ZMC Bill.

Journalist Innocent Kurwa suggested his prescription for section 7 which gives the minister wide powers to appoint commissioners. “The minister must be removed totally from involvement in the ZMC Act or Bill and be answerable to the public via parliament.” Journalism student Nobesuthu Ngwenya agreed, saying that parliament must have the final word on appointees to the Zimbabwe Media Commission because ministers are not usually appointed on merit, but political affiliation and tend to serve parochial party interests. I would rather have nominees for the Media Commission vetted for approval by parliament rather than appointed by a single minister.

Ultra vires

According to legal experts, the widely defined roles of the minister in the running and management of the ZMC are contrary to section 235 (1) of the constitution whose provisions guarantee the independence of Chapter 12 institutions, such as the ZMC. Chris Mhike, a media law expert who is also a journalist and lawyer, says under the current wording of the Bill, the commission cannot make substantive decisions without consulting and seeking approval from the minister.

“The Zimbabwe Media Commission is one of the Chapter 12 institutions established via the constitution. That means it ought to be completely independent of government and any other player and yet in the Bill today there are wide powers that are given to the minister to interfere basically with the operations of the commission,” he said.

Shackling the press

The Bill calls for penalties for offences and for contraventions of regulations that will see offenders jailed for “periods not exceeding a fine of level six or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to both such fine and such imprisonment.”

The idea is to muzzle the press again and this particular provision is a blatant backtracking to the criminal defamation offence which was struck off the statutes by the Constitutional Court in 2016. The ZMC Bill is Aippa by another name, in my view. In my understanding, defamation is a delict not a crime. Civil matters are handled by civil courts.

Co-regulation rather

The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe, a professional media self-regulatory body set up in 2007 by Zimbabwean journalists and other stakeholders in civil society has also come out against Section 21 (3) of the Bill amongst other issues.

“We are glad that people have been calling for the fusing together of statutory regulation and self-regulation as a way that might work in Zimbabwe. The Bill wanted to continue with criminalisation of the profession through provisions which would violate the rules of the commission to be liable . . . The people are speaking out against the criminalisation of the profession and we are very happy about that.” The executive director of the organisation, Loughty Dube, says despite consultations, the Bill also omits the cabinet-approved principle of co-regulation. Isaac Waniwa, a senior journalist with The Chronicle, also proposed at the Bulawayo meeting that co-regulation is the best to follow.

Parting shot

My view is that rather than expend energy crafting laws to induce more “darkness”, the state must expend energy on creating an enabling environment which can inspire actual progress. The state must surrender the bully pulpit. For balance, on its part, government maintains its rhetoric publicly of instituting media reforms. Actions however speak louder than words.

I am hoping at the end, we will see the public and stakeholders concerns reflected in the final Bill. The five or so stakeholder consultative meetings should count for something. Why waste resources just so we can end up back where we started? We need to retrieve sense and the dare/enkundleni culture of consultation.

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