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Shamu used World Press Freedom Day last week to threaten journalists in the privately-owned media with a return to an era of vicious media repression if they persisted with an “anti-African and anti-Zimbabwe frenzy”, whose meaning he did not clarify.

However, Shamu did not seem to realise his threats were actually markedly dissimilar to what is currently happening inSouth Africa where the ANC is now on the back foot over its bid to establish a punitive statutory media regulatory body or a media appeals tribunal.

The ANC had been pushing for a Media Appeals Tribunal, but this was viewed as political repression aimed at gagging the media to prevent them from exposing abuse of power and corruption.

However, the ANC, which was widely criticised for trying to stifle the media, is now being forced to consider a proposal by the Press Freedom Commission (PFC) to regulate the media.

The PFC, which is chaired by former chief justice Pius Langa, was launched last year by the Print Media South Africa and the South Africa National Editors Forum. It consists of nine people selected from outside the media community to review the system of press regulation in South Africa.

In a report titled Press Regulation in South Africa April 2012, the PFC carried out research and came up with recommendations to act as alternatives to ANC proposals on the ideal regulatory framework for print media in South Africa.

The PFC suggested after meetings with civil society groups, academics from journalism and media studies, political parties, newspaper editors and ordinary people that a system of co-regulation independent of government and comprising people from various sections of society outside the press industry be established as a media watchdog.

Although the report is still to be reviewed by the ANC’s national executive committee, the party is reportedly “very comfortable” with the proposals.
Unlike Zimbabwe, the PFC is an independent body without state interference. While the ANC is being forced to retreat, the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) is busy trying to come up with a statutory regulation body even though there is already the Voluntary Media Council. Groups like Alpha Media have an internal ombudsman to enforce ethics and professionalism.

According to the PFC report, there were proposals to develop a “hierarchy of sanctions” ranging from minor breaches to more serious infringements.
A hierarchy of sanctions for print media was listed as anything from correction, retraction, apology, rejoinder, reprimands by the regulator, a range of space fines, monetary fines and expulsion from the press council in extreme cases of persistent recidivism.

It says sanctions for ethical infractions were important because the press was in the public domain and, therefore, has an obligation to function in accordance with the moral, values and norms of society which it serves.

The report states ethical breaches include common human errors like faulty observations, wrong spellings and other minor omissions as well as wrong conclusions such as faulty analysis, poor judgment, genuine error of facts and using misleading sources.

Publication of indecent material, plagiarism, distortion, fabrication, defamation and other wrongs committed with the intent to cause harm are some examples of ethical violations.

The PFC notes the press regulatory mechanism must result in the press correcting its errors and improving on accuracy, accountability, compensation for any damage inflicted by the media, promoting the right of free speech and promoting higher professional and ethical standards.
Developments in South Africa show Shamu was either ill-informed or deliberately pulling in the opposite direction as he sought to justify a renewed crackdown against the private press.

Every year on May 3 people around the world commemorate World Press Freedom Day, but rather than sharing in a global desire for media freedom, Shamu’s address was widely condemned.

Shamu threatened a new wave of repression if the media continued with its “anti-African and anti-Zimbabwe frenzy”.

Shamu’s threats to renew media tyranny are a chilling reminder of previous assaults when state-sponsored attacks on journalists led to the arrests of journalists, including the the murder of the country’s first black cameraman and ZBC reporter Edward Chikomba.

Although politically Zimbabwe is far more stable now and is ranked above emerging leaders of the Global South, China, India and Russia, it is ranked 177 on the 2011 Press Freedom Index indicating the highly restrictive environment in which the press operates.

Shamu’s threats against the local and foreign media came against backdrop of previous warning targeted at journalists for writing stories about President Robert Mugabe and his family’s Zesa bills, internal party succession battles and persistent rumours of the president’s ill-health.

Government officials in Zimbabwe have always shown discomfort with the private press which has widely exposed abuse of power by the political and business elites as well as corruption.

As a result the private media has been subjected to a systematic campaign of repression, with journalists being intimidated, arrested and detained, while newspapers have been closed down or bombed.

Of late there have been renewed threats to clamp down on the media by banning foreign newspapers –– which Mugabe’s diehards do not like –– from entering the Zimbabwean market, even though local papers circulate freely in neighbouring countries.

The banning of newspapers from the region, especially from South Africa, is likely to trigger a diplomatic quarrel as that would amount to unfair trade practices. Newspapers are treated as any other product, paying necessary taxes and duties.

ZMC chairperson Godfrey Majonga has said the process of setting up a media council started early last year but there has been “some resistance” from other stakeholders.

Zanu PF politicians have been pressuring ZMC to crackdown on the private media and ban foreign newspapers. ZMC is trying to force foreign newspapers to register with it, a move deemed unlawful as this is tantamount to applying Zimbabwe’s laws extra-territorially.

The private media has already established the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) to deal with complaints against journalists. The move to establish a statutory body –– which is a counter to VMCZ –– to police the media is bound to have a negative effect on the media, particularly in view of Shamu’s attitude and remarks which reflect Zanu PF’s thinking on press freedom.