Shooting the messenger
… new threats to press freedom
ON February 3 this year, Zimbabwe’s media community celebrated the nullification of the criminal defamation law under which scores of journalists had been arrested.
The Constitutional Court had ruled that the notorious law was ultra vires the Constitution and therefore should be struck off statute books.
A few days after the ruling, the media fraternity was crying foul after a journalist from Chiredzi, a sugar town on the southern tip of the country, was jailed by a lower court for running a community newspaper without a licence.
It was a rude awakening for media personnel.
The celebration was premature as the field is still littered with laws that have been dismissed as draconian by media activists and opposition party lawmakers.
For example, there has been serious lobby for the repeal of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the single biggest threat to press freedom in Zimbabwe.
It is under AIPPA that the journalist from Chiredzi was arrested and convicted just because he was practising journalism without accreditation.
From President Robert Mugabe down to ministers and lower ranking members of his ZANU-PF party, threatening speeches have been churned out, signalling a serious intent to supress the media.
And not only are they targeting the conventional media; they also seek to control social media, borrowing from repressive nations such as China and North Korea.
The renewed hostilities against the media come after a bright phase that started soon after the 2013 general elections.
The uneasy relations obtaining today between government and the media render the latter a target.
There are examples to show that the media in Zimbabwe has, in one way or another, been placed in a state of siege and on the defensive.
Operating under the new Constitution which promised so much hope for press freedom, especially as espoused in the Bill of Rights, the then minister of information, Jonathan Moyo, established the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) to lay the foundation towards improving the media landscape. The findings were never acted upon and the report has been shelved, along with the renewed hope that had become palpable in all newsrooms.
In October last year, President Mugabe strongly criticised privately-owned newspapers, labelling them “opposition press” and dismissing them as “rubbish newspapers”.
First Lady, Grace Mugabe has also labelled journalists foolish, hungry, bitter and uneducated.
Rubbing salt to the wounds, George Charamba, who is President Mugabe’s spokesperson, gave the clearest indication yet that government was keen to introduce more repressive laws.
“I will recommend most effective ways of controlling errant behaviour in the newsroom. So you will have a piece of legislation that seeks to restrain rather than to enable media practices,” he recently said.
Charamba has also threatened to cause the arrest of journalists who report on the security sector if they refuse to disclose their sources.
This is despite the fact that the Constitution clearly guarantees reporters their right to protect their sources.
These threats have been followed up by action, with scores of journalists getting arrested, this reporter included, while doing their job.
Presently, three journalists from Alpha Media Holdings are facing charges of publishing falsehoods.
Even those from the State-controlled media who have been enjoying qualified immunity over the years, have been at the receiving end of the State’s heavy handedness.
Sunday Mail editor, Mabasa Sasa, and two reporters were arrested last December after publishing a story alleging a senior police officer was involved in a poaching syndicate which left 22 elephants dead.
It is not surprising therefore that Zimbabwe continues to fare badly on the Reporters Without Boarders World Press Freedom Index.
The 2016 World Press Freedom Index reflects the intensity of the attacks on journalistic freedom and independence by government, ideologies and private-sector interests during the past year and describes the operating environment as “very difficult”.
Seen as the most dependable benchmark throughout the world, the index also includes indicators of the level of media freedom violations in each region.
The free press concept is derived from Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
In theory, the free press concept thrives on the backdrop of a legal and regulatory environment that allows for an open and pluralistic media sector to emerge; political will to support the sector and rule of law to protect it; laws ensuring access to information, especially information in the public domain as well as the necessary media literacy skills among news givers and consumers to critically analyse and synthesise information to use it in their daily lives and to hold the media accountable for its actions.
“These elements, along with media professionals adhering to the highest ethical and professional standards designed by practitioners, serve as the fundamental infrastructure on which freedom of expression can prevail. On this basis, media serves as a watchdog civil society engages with authorities and decision-makers, information flows through and between communities,” argues media academic, Alexander Rusero.
Whereas other countries are moving to embrace these necessary conditions, there is just too much weight of law, custom and precedent pushing back the other way in Zimbabwe, leaving many to wonder if the country will ever have a truly free press.
A fresh convergence of ideas is emerging among media practitioners, academics and activists who continue to mull over the liberty and standing of the press in this young millennium.
“Verbal attacks on journalists by senior politicians which is often followed by arrests, harassment and even death threats against the targeted journalists is a sad development which should not be tolerated in this century. We note that government continues to use the financial and other leverage it holds over media owners to influence coverage of politically sensitive issues. Even the IMPI report acknowledges that journalists increasingly have to operate in a climate of increasing self-censorship and media polarisation,” said Forster Dongozi, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists.
Academics, critics and practitioners agree that there are many threats to press freedom today and that the future of the press is more uncertain now than ever before in these hi-tech times.
“The era of handheld publishing and a million blogs blooming calls us to question the old role and authority of the dead-tree press,” said chairman of the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum, Njabulo Ncube.
Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe director, Loughty Dube said the jailing of a journalist from Chiredzi for operating an unlicensed community newspaper was a clear indication that government still has a host of other laws to suppress journalists.
“That criminal defamation has now been outlawed is a reason to celebrate, but people should not over celebrate because there are still six or seven more laws that can be used to arrest and jail media workers,” he said.
Academic and political scientist, Ibbo Mandaza, said: “Zimbabwe’s media is under siege. We have been taken back to the Rhodesian period. The State is now ruling without being accountable to people.”
The ZANU-PF government has a history of clamping down hard on the media.
In the early 2000s, for instance, when ZANU-PF’s political dominance was being challenged more than ever before, critical news outlets were accused of being opposition mouthpieces and journalists were targeted.
The privately-owned Daily News was bombed twice — in 2000 and then again in 2001 while its editor was arrested repeatedly.
This media repression continued through most of the 2000s.
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