Vivienne Marara :analyst
THE year 2020 has been a challenging year!
It has been a year in which our material existence and the existence of our (media) industry have been threatened existentially through the emergence of the global pandemic — Covid-19.
Despite our losses, fears and unmet expectations, we remain resolute and hopeful that it still remains within our power to change the course of media developments here in Zimbabwe.
State of media sector
Despite the challenges that the media sector encountered in the past year, there were however a number of positive developments that we should take time to acknowledge and even celebrate.
The year 2020 saw the repealing of the infamous Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), which is set to be replaced by three laws.
Aippa consistently featured as a dark spot in discourses around the media and had been used in previous years to stifle media freedom and the enjoyment of access to information rights.
Media practitioners, together with media support organisations, expended a lot of energy and ink denouncing this law and we are happy that, finally, Aippa is no longer in our statutes.
As of now, one of the three laws set to replace Aippa, the Freedom of Information Act has since been promulgated. As such, we now await the enactment of the two remaining laws namely the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill and the Protection of Personal Privacy Bill.
The above is, indeed, a milestone achievement, and it is hoped that the new laws that replaced and will be replacing Aippa, will be observed in their letter and spirit.
Despite the progressive provisions in for example the Freedom of Information Act, as an (Media) Alliance (of Zimbabwe, MAZ), we do continue to register our reservations that the law contains old contradictions which were inherent within Aippa.
We acknowledge that we may not achieve perfection at once, but we now look forward to the implementation of the law to serve the best interests of the media sector, including reducing tensions between the State and the media, a point that had unfortunately soured our cooperation in the last two decades.
We also welcome the invitation for the submission of applications made by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (Baz) for community radios and free to air national commercial television licences. This of course came against the background of the enactment of the community radio regulations meant to guide the operations of the sector.
The BAZ invitation for applications represents an incremental step towards the opening of the airwaves so as to ensure that more citizens, including those in marginalised and underrepresented communities, access information and media products.
However, for us as a sector, the extent to which the second dispensation is committed to diversifying the media space will be witnessed through the licence-awarding process. The country benefits little from oligopolies in the media, as such, the media sector should be characterised by diversity and plurality.
It is commendable that the government finally constituted the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) Board. We are also especially happy that the chairperson of the commission is a woman — Ruby Magosvongwe.
The coming in of the new board is also against a background of conversations about the need for a co-regulation mechanism amongst media stakeholders. We are happy that differences within the sector have narrowed significantly and we remain hopeful that the new ZMC board will help bridge this gap forever.
As discussed at the 2019 all stakeholders conference, there was a recommendation on the need for robust attention on how men and women in the industry are relating to each other.
There was also a call for the enactment of sexual harassment policies and the actioning around complaints — both of which I am happy to say have been followed upon on in the past year by both the media houses themselves and also media support organisations.
However, we have not yet “arrived”, more needs to be done to curb incidences of bullying and sexual harassment in the media. Whereas I have enumerated some of the gains and positives that occurred in the past year, there were however also a number of negatives that were recorded.
The Covid-19 pandemic that hit the globe this year brought to the fore the fact that our national economies and the industry in particular are vulnerable.
Before the emergence of Covid-19, some of our institutions were already reeling from the economic challenges in the country.
The emergence of Covid-19, which further resulted in depressed economic activity culminated in massive loss of revenue for the media as there was less advertising by business and less disposable income to buy media products by citizens.
Loss of revenue unfortunately also led to massive job losses in the media, with female journalists also bearing the brunt. As an alliance, we anticipate that these developments will continue to manifest in the coming year unless and if media stakeholders come together and craft strategies to ensure the resilience and viability of the sector to withstand external shocks and recover from the challenges we have experienced this year.
It is not by coincidence that this year’s all stakeholders meeting was held on November 2, a day which was set aside to commemorate the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against journalists.
Covid-19 regrettably provided a threat to our industry whereby authorities clamped down on freedoms, including journalistic freedoms in the name of combating the disease and enforcing lockdown measures.
We therefore saw more than 20 of our media colleagues being arrested and harassed for doing their work under, and in connection with Covid-19. Some of the infractions against our sector also included beatings, intimidation, manipulation and threats to personal security.
I reflect on the sad fact that some people and institutions that have beaten, harassed and intimidated our colleagues have gone unpunished and may never be held accountable.
As an industry, we say no to impunity and call upon authorities to investigate all crimes perpetrated against journalists including persecution of the same.
It is prudent for government to make sure that such a situation does not obtain, much less degenerate, as this has implications on not only the enjoyment of journalistic freedoms, but also the standing of Zimbabwe in the eyes of the international community, especially at a time that the country is talking about re-engagement.
I, however, wish to commend the Ministry of information who in some cases came in to assist colleagues who had unfortunately been unfairly detained.
As an alliance, we also want to express our grave concern at the new legislative instruments that are on the table such as the Cyber Security Bill and Amendments to the Criminal Law Codification Act that will have the effect of closing down the democratic space enjoyed by the media, including the operations of our sector. We are also made to understand that there will be another law — the Patriot Act — that will arbitrarily criminalise certain interactions.
This is indeed regrettable and takes our country back several years. We therefore urge authorities to rethink some of these laws and negative energies.
Similarly to what was done in the unbundling of Aippa into three separate laws, we urge government to do the same with regards to the Cyber security and Data Protection Bills which bundles together three broad issues related to Cyber Security, Electronic Transactions and Data Protection.
Conclusion and way forward
Let me conclude by reaffirming that as media stakeholders, we are positive that our industry can grow and develop in the coming year. However, for this to be achievable there is need for unity of purpose amongst stakeholders including narrowing of our differences as we seek to positively transform the media sector here in Zimbabwe.
Marara is MAZ chairperson and national coordinator of the Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (Zacras). She has worked extensively in media freedom and freedom of expression advocacy with a particular interest in community radio. She made this presentation at the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe 2020 All Stakeholders Meeting in Harare on Monday.