By Tabani Moyo
THERE have been positive milestones in the media law and policy reform, which include the repeal of the infamous Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) in July 2020, the bold decision by the government to announce post-cabinet decisions, licensing of new television and radio stations.
However, all these gains will be in vain if the government fails to handle issues around media regulation — which was at the centre of contestation between the state and stakeholders within and outside Zimbabwe for the past two decades.
The media regulatory framework has been a contested terrain since the birth of the solitary state, Zimbabwe. The laws are entrenched and fragmented, emerging from a centric control thinking and philosophy that, “if you leave media to regulate itself the country will slide into chaos”.
However, the Freedom of Information Act (FOA) gave the citizens and media stakeholders hope that the government was in an irreversible gear towards dismantling this archaic mindset.
Yet there are remnants of this archaic thinking embedded in the various strata of officialdom, seemingly being pronounced through proxy by a clique at the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), which is anti-reforms.
If the regulation of the media is handled well, the government would have turned a leaf into a new chapter of possibilities around media development, support and operation. Yet a wrong turn will in a blink of an eye lead to the re-birth of Aippa through a different package. No one wins with the latter; we have been there before and dread taking that route again.
Aippa came into the statute books at the turn of the new millennium as the government’s weapon against release of information to the citizens. It was an omnibus law that lumped together access to information, media, and privacy regulation.
The most contentious of these three broad issues was the media regulation through its statutory body, the Media and Information Commission (MIC), which was responsible for the closure of the Daily News and Tribune, not forgetting the arrests and detention of several journalists.
Its head and public figure was generally referred to as “the media hangman”. Though the act provided for the MIC to establish a media committee as the enforcement arm of the media ethics and code of conduct, the media practitioners declined participation as they lobbied for self-regulation of the industry.
For the duration of the commission’s lifespan, it limped on without a functional committee as journalists shunned the poisoned chalice.
Emerging from the reality, the government through parliament, Ministry of Information and Ministry of Justice in consultation with the media stakeholders and the ZMC decided that the industry should lead the process of drafting a practitioner’s bill to guide the regulation of journalism in Zimbabwe.
This decision was arrived at after extensive consultations, which led to the agreement that the best form of compromise was a co-regulatory framework. In coming to this decision all the parties were guided by Section 249(3) which reads: “An Act of Parliament may provide for the regulation of the media.”
The media stakeholders, government and the ZMC were starting to drift towards a lasting solution to an endemic problem that polarised the media for a long time.
Hence the media industry in consultation with its members accepted to lead the process of drafting the Bill, which it did and submitted to the Parliament of Zimbabwe, ministry of Information who had requested of such services so that the stakeholders and the government could move in unison.
This was a process building up to the realisation by government that Aippa and its twin the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) were no longer suitable to govern the media industry in the 21st Century.
Appearing before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media, Information and Broadcasting Services in Harare on February 18, 2016, the then permanent secretary for the line ministry and spokesperson for presidency, George Charamba, said both Aippa and the Broadcasting Services Act were no longer compatible with regulation of a modern society highlighting the following six compelling emerging issues:
Need to comply with the new constitution;
Developments in the broadcasting and print sectors;
The macro-technological changes;
Changing societal tastes;
The need for conformity to strategic goals of the nation; and
Convergence of technological and global information factors.
However, the ZMC through different fora with the stakeholders, parliament and the Information ministry expressed reservations and felt threatened that its constitutional powers were being usurped.
The stakeholders in consultation with the journalists and media in Zimbabwe through numerous consultative processes have equally expressed frustration and believe that the remnants of the MIC have taken over the process.
I, therefore, argue in this presentation that the government had started on a good footing by allowing the industry to propose how it was going to be regulated.
In that regard, the media proposed a co-regulation process of the industry being the entry process with delegated powers from ZMC to jointly enforce regulatory codes and ethics while the ZMC becomes a higher body of appeal. Yet it seems that we have drifted far apart.
If the government continues to stand in the fringes and allow for this gap to widen the way it has done, the process will ultimately breakdown. Once it breaks down, there will be efforts to spearhead the rebirth of Aippa through the commission remaining the sole regulator of the industry.
The industry will equally continue to strengthen its self-regulation mechanism, hence a missed chance to conclude the process which had started well but has gone off the rails due to the remnants of the MIC and statutory regulation and those baptised into it through induction at the ZMC and the ministry.
The country and the industry will be the biggest losers for allowing a few remnants of the past to hold hostage of the entire progressive minds in pursuit of narrow ends.
This is an opportunity for a diversity of viewpoints to work together and emerge with a product for national benefit in a same trajectory that led to the birth of the Freedom of Information Act. The remnants of the past and those induced into it should not triumph over good.
As such I say, the rebirth of Aippa and dominion of statutory regulation must not prevail as it is against media economics, advancement of journalism, breaking with the past nor does it anchor national development.
Indeed, the interest of those pushing for it is smaller than those of the republic and the broader good of our society.
When journalists are allowed space to set their ethics and codes as the primary tool for that and the constitutional commission jointly enforcing these behaviours as a body of appeal, the media, contrary to archaic thinking that they brew chaos, become more responsible and accountable.
- Moyo is a journalist. He leads the Misa-Zimbabwe team and acts as regional director for Misa regional secretariat and writes in his personal capacity. — email@example.com