By Matthew Takaona
The Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) organised a large workshop in Mutare two weeks ago for key stakeholders to make final comments on two media bills that are to go before Parliament anytime from now.
I attended the workshop and my view as a journalist, a founder member of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) and a former commissioner at (ZMC) is that the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) Bill, 2019 if passed in its current form spells disaster for the media industry in this country.
My suggestion at the workshop was for a total revamp of the Bill before it is taken to Cabinet for the executive’s opinion.
The revamp process will require a small team of media experts who are not only patriotic but have hands-on experience in the media and are thoroughly conversant with the three different systems of media regulations namely statutory, voluntary and a combination of statutory and voluntary.
These media bills are important because they bring Zimbabwe at crossroads and the nation must decisively use this opportunity to correct past mistakes or the country will find itself walking the old and familiar road again.
The ZMC Bill misses the mark on two particular issues namely regulation and the independence of the Commission. In terms of regulation, my view is that the Bill actually equips the Commission with powers and tools to harass journalists in a far more monstrous way than ever before.
Reading through the Bill one gets the sense that the legislative drafters have no link whatsoever with the issues that dogged the media in the last two decades and they are at sea as to the Bill’s supposed objectives and what it is desired to attain for Zimbabwe.
The drafters of the Bill display ignorance of the reasons why journalists, the civic society, democratic forces and the international community have been clamouring for the repeal of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) hence some key provisions of the new Bill are worse than the current law.
The arguments by pro media law-reform activists have always been that the media environment in this country is poisoned, AIPPA is too draconian and repressive it curtails Press Freedom; it criminalises journalism and has led to the arrest and imprisonment of journalists during the course of their work.
In a democracy, which Zimbabwe seeks to attain, journalism is not criminalised.
There has also been concern that the media laws do not conform to international conventions that Zimbabwe is a signatory to.
The 2013 Constitution sought to deal with tall of these issues and hence the provision for a Zimbabwe Media Commission whose mandate is to promote Press Freedom and create a conducive environment for the practise of journalism. The ZMC Bill should be an effort to align the statutes with the 2013 Constitution and hence address the problems of the media alluded to above.
In addition to a review of the ZMC Bill, the workshop which was graced by the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa attended to the Freedom of Information Bill and the National Media and Film Policy but this article will only deal with the ZMC Bill.
The first and glaring shortfall of the ZMC Bill is that it sharply contradicts the Constitution of Zimbabwe in terms of the independence of the Zimbabwe Media Commission as a constitutional body. The Constitution clearly and categorically states that constitutional commissions are independent bodies that are not answerable to anyone.
Chapter 12 section 235 (a) of the Constitution says that “independent Commissions are independent and are not subject to the direction or control of anyone… although they are accountable to Parliament for the efficient of performance of their functions,” says the Constitution.
The spirit of the Constitution is to ensure that these bodies are run by men and women of integrity and they are free from interference and manipulation by politicians. However, as it stands, several provisions of the Bill make the Zimbabwe Media Commission answerable to the Minister of Information without whose authority it will not make certain key decisions.
The Bill reduces the Commission to a mere parastatal within the Ministry of Information. The Bill is so badly crafted in this area that ZMC’s independence cannot be guaranteed even if an angel is to be appointed Minister.
There are several contentious provisions in the Bill and the key one is Part 2 Clause 7 which bars the Commission from appointing its executive secretary who is the head of the secretariat without the approval of the Minister of Information. This means that the head of the secretariat is in essence chosen by the Minister and the Minister’s influence on this key appointment compromises the commissioners and makes them redundant.
The allegiance of such an appointee will naturally be to the Minister first and to the Commissioners second. This is something I have witnessed and experienced as a member of the first board of commissioners at ZMC from 2010 to 2016 and it is an arrangement that is so counterproductive it must not be tried again.
The Commission’s independence is further eroded by Part 5 General Provisions Clause 21 which only allows the Commission to make regulations with the approval of the Minister.
The Minister is also given powers under Section 10 subsection 8 to interfere and intervene during investigation or hearing on an enquiry into a complaint by the Commission and stop disclosure of information he/she deems of a security nature.
Section 17 forfeits the Commission’s financial independence to the Minister by ensuring that any donations, grants or bequests made by any person, or organisation or government are accepted after consultation with the Minister.
The Commission is also required under Section 18 to submit its end of year financial report to the Minister. The spirit of the Constitution is however that the Commission answers to Parliament and not to members of the executive arm of the State.
These provisions create a ZMC which is weaker than provided for in the Constitution.
The second contentious issue relates to the Commission’s powers over journalists granted under statutory regulation. These powers are no doubt draconian; they send cold chills down one’s spine. In a democracy journalists are not subjected to the Police and kangaroo courts on matters concerning their work.
In fact democratic nations all over the World have shied away from statutory regulation of journalists. Nations have embraced systems where journalists regulate themselves.
The ZMC Bill vests the Commission with the full powers of a court of law. In fact ZMC has powers equal to those of a Commission of Inquiry and it can summon and send media practitioners to jail. The Bill allows ZMC to use the police to investigate journalists work.
This provision is the worst media provision ever in Zimbabwe’s statutes. The Bill is so monstrous it is a bigger brother to AIPPA. This tool can wreck havoc and destroy Press Freedom if it lands in the hands of a mercurial person like former Minister of Information Professor Jonathan Moyo.
Another matter of concern to delegates at the workshop is the criteria to be used for selecting candidates for appointment to the Commission. The Bill says anyone can be appointed to the ZMC board as long as one is a person of integrity, has competence in administration and knowledge and understanding of human rights and media issues.
The Bill overlooks the fact that journalism is a profession with certain competences only gained through practice or study of the field. The criteria for selection of commissioners is so broad that one can end up with a board of farmers, nurses, lawyers and engineers to the detriment of the critical skills for media management that the industry needs.
Matthew Takaona is a senior journalist, a founder member of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ),a former commissioner at (ZMC) and a former Chairperson of Radio VOP Board of Trustees