Media changes In Zimbabwe Cosmetic Or Genuine?

Most messages impressed upon the importance of opening up media freedom in the country through the removal of laws that hinder the work of journalists.

The day however comes at a particularly interesting time in the history of the country’s media industry. New daily newspapers have hit the market and new jobs have been created for long suffering journalists. The industry is abuzz with the new developments.

Analysts however believe it’s not time to pop the champagne for media freedom. Loughty Dube, the chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe Chapter is of the opinion that the changes that have happened since the inception of the Government of National Unity (GNU) are only cosmetic.

“There is nothing of essence, there has not been any changes,” said Dube. “Only the registering of media has happened but we still have bad laws…there has not been any movement in broadcasting.”

Journalists have been repeatedly arrested since the inception of the GNU. For instance Zimbabwe Independent journalists Constantine Chimakure and Vincent Kahiya have been taken in on charges of breaching Section 31 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which deals with publishing false statements that undermines public confidence in security agents. The two were arrested on 11 May 2009 after publishing a story in the privately-owned The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper that named members of the police and secret service who were allegedly involved in the abduction of civic and political activists.

Another journalist, Nqobani Ndlovu was arrested lon charges of criminal defamation after he authored a story about police suspending promotional examinations in a move allegedly designed to recall war veterans to the force to shore up its ranks ahead of elections.

Several other journalists live in the shadow of threats of arrests and intimidation.

The World Press Freedom Day celebrated annually on May 3 was established by the United Nations to celebrate the principle of press freedom and those who died while trying to achieve it.

The Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), a constitutional body whose brief is to regulate the operations of print media in the country has lined up a high profile event to commemorate the day on Tuesday at a Harare hotel.The body has invited several organisations even those that were previously regarded as enemies to this event.

Other pro-media freedom organisations will also celebrate the day with events such as marches, policy dialogues and public meetings.

In his message to mark the day the United States Ambassador, Charles Ray acknowledged the progress that has been made in the media industry since the inception of the GNU but said more still needed to be done.

“These developments stand out in an environment that is still dominated by legal restrictions on media reporting and a closed ideological broadcasting sector monopolised by one political party,” said Ray.

The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) remains the country’s only broadcaster since independence in 1980.

MISA’s Dube says there is need for “constitutional provisions which guarantee media freedom” adding that this must be coupled by a “repeal of bad laws that affect media operations, license the airwaves and government should recognise the essence of media self regulation as agreed in 1997.”

The theme for the celebrations is “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers.”

Locating it in the realm of things in Zimbabwe, the theme is very apt.

“ZBC has been personalised by Zanu (PF) for its political campaigns like many other state property,” Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZIMRIGHTS) said in its May 3 message. “Although some media reforms have been made a logjam will remain if repressive laws are not repealed. These include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act which all present journalists with barriers to information gathering, thereby affecting the type of news being disseminated.”

The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) says while it welcomes the opening up of new papers, it remains worried “that these newspapers only circulate in urban areas while the vast majority of Zimbabweans have no access to information at all and the silence and inaction from the broadcasting authority on licenses for the broadcasting media.”

The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) says it is worried by that there are no efforts to liberalise the airwaves while the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) is worried by the “escalating state clampdown on freedom of the press and restriction of freedom of expression” and wants repressive media laws to be repealed. Furthermore it urged media practitioners to recommit to ethical journalism.