New media Bill slammed

HARARE - Zimbabwe's press freedom groups have said a proposed new media bill has little guarantees for free speech and gave government frightening powers to control the media ahead of forthcoming elections.

The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) — a self-regulating committee of journalists, lawyers, priests, businesspersons and ordinary persons —said, in a highly critical report that, MDC MP Settlement Chikwinya’s draft ‘Media Freedom and Transparency Bill’ violated the Constitution and undermined freedom of expression despite amendments aimed at appeasing the media.

“The Bill, while seeking to transform the media legislative framework through calling for the repeal of the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), an Act that has been used to arbitrarily arrest and detain journalists, unfortunately retains provisions in the Bill that are still undemocratic and hinder freedom of expression,” VMCZ chairperson Alec Muchadehama said.

“The Bill retains the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) and a Media Council under provisions that in our view do not conform to the spirit and letter of Section 20 of the current Constitution, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights as well as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Nhlanhla Ngwenya, director of Misa Zimbabwe chapter, told the Daily News that while they support initiatives that seek to repeal laws such as Aippa, there were “issues” with the Bill.

“As a party that claims to be government in waiting, it must table before Parliament laws that are in sync with various democratic protocols on freedom of expression and media freedom,” Ngwenya said.

Chikwinya, who chairs the Media, Information and Communication Technology parliamentary portfolio committee, said he would hold more talks to ensure the private member’s Bill fits the media practitioners’ preferred template and then steer its passage through Parliament.

He is due to table a motion on the media Bill when Parliament resumes sitting on tomorrow.

The proposed Media Freedom and Transparency Bill, which Chikwinya crafted after noting the apparent refusal by Information minister Webster Shamu to make changes to Aippa, would establish a Media Complaints Committee; recommend a fine or a prison term not exceeding six months for a media practitioner found guilty of a violation of a media code of conduct.

The Bill is likely to be delayed for weeks by procedural problems and internal wrangling.

The ‘Orwellian’ Aippa that it seeks to repeal was draconian, restricted access for foreign reporters, imposed tight controls on local media and undermined press freedom.

Chikwinya said some clauses could be tightened, but added: “It is constitutional in all its intents and purposes. To say it’s unconstitutional is a misrepresentation.”

The Daily News understands Zanu PF legislators were not too keen on the legislation.

Chikwinya’s Bill will maintain the licensing and registration of journalists and media groups, restrictions on freedom of expression, and jail terms, albeit reduced from two years to six months.

VMCZ commended MP Chikwinya for trying to repeal the draconian Aippa legislation, but said they still found several clauses in his Bill which violated the constitution.

“It is the VMCZ’s considered view that such provisions in the Bill are not in the best interests for media freedom or freedom of expression in Zimbabwe, particularly, where they seek to continue a culture of the bureaucratisation of freedom of expression only in order to curtail it,” Muchadehama said.

The VMCZ chairperson said it was beyond its mandate to accept “compromise” legislation that still undermines freedom of expression and media freedom.

Ngwenya said Misa Zimbabwe felt that the Bill includes provisions that seek to massage egos of MDC’s political rivals.

The VMCZ was especially critical of retaining a state-appointed commission which would retain powers to licence journalists, enforce standards and conduct investigations.

The Bill, however, also has positive provisions such as decriminalising criticism of the President. - Gift Phiri

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