Press Freedom day: Time to reflect

HARARE - World Press Freedom Day gives us a chance to pay tribute to media professionals within Zimbabwe and beyond who risk their lives and that of their families in their line of duty.

It is an opportune time to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom in our country and throughout the world and defend the media from attacks on their independence.

This year’s theme “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media” puts the spotlight in particular, on the issues of safety of journalists, combating impunity for crimes against freedom of expression, and securing a free and open internet as the precondition for online safety.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) believes that a free and independent media is essential to the development and sustainability of a vibrant democracy, and integral to realising the public’s right to diverse information and views.

Since ZLHR is deeply committed to freedom of expression and access to information, ZLHR salutes the brave journalists and media houses that have in the past year committed to exposing human rights violations, executive excesses, corruption and other ills in both the public and private sphere.

It is saddening to note that Zimbabwe is still saddled with an arsenal of repressive media and criminal laws despite committing itself to international, continental and sub regional standards and principles that urge state to promote media freedom.

Almost five years after the formation of the inclusive government and the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) those in authority have failed to implement the key media reforms agreed during the embryonic stage of what we considered to be a transition to democracy.

Five years of inclusive governing have failed to roll back the regime of censorship and secrecy that were the hallmarks of the previous repressive era.

The GPA clearly stipulates that laws impacting negatively on fundamental rights and freedoms were to be amended to ensure a conducive legislative environment. These undertakings have been ignored, if not violated, with impunity.

Obnoxious laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act among a host of other repressive laws, continue to stifle media freedoms and have resulted in the subsequent arrest of journalists, citizen journalists and several citizens.

This has been a clear indication that legislative and institutional reform is not a priority for the inclusive government and such repressive laws will continue to be used selectively by unreformed State institutions and actors to prevent constitutional freedoms from being exercised due to lack of political will and failure to censure heavy-handed action whenever it occurs.

The publicly-owned but State-controlled media (both print and electronic) has failed to provide programming and content that enlighten people in a comprehensive and educative manner.

Inequality of access to such media by representatives offering dissenting views remains a challenge.

ZLHR has been monitoring, with increasing concern, recent reportage in the State-controlled and other partisan media which, when read in its entirety, constitutes a professional and personal attack on a well-respected judge of the High Court of Zimbabwe (Justice Charles Hungwe), as well as a broader and more disturbing assault on the independence and integrity of the judiciary and legal profession in Zimbabwe.
What is of the greatest concern is that such hate speech and false reporting has not only been tolerated, but has in fact been encouraged to continue with complete impunity.

Reform of the public broadcaster and State-controlled media remains outstanding despite its urgency and the GPA requirement that this be prioritised by the inclusive government.

Other repressive laws continue to be abused and selectively applied against targeted civil society organisations (CSOs) and human rights defenders.

The Broadcasting Services Act has also been used to stifle lawfully operational alternative media and voices. In relation to the latter, police have, since the beginning of the year, arbitrarily sought to “ban” alternative sources of media -— namely short-wave radios.

This has been followed by the confiscation of radios from CSOs and communities that have been searched or found in possession of such gadgets. This unlawful confiscation of radios is directly linked to the closing up of access to diverse information and leads to a situation where people in communities are not able to get any alternative sources of information.

ZLHR calls upon the inclusive government and the Zimbabwe Media Commission to make use of the World Press Freedom Day commemorations as a golden opportunity to advance the media reform package which was kick-started by the inclusive government through promises that remain unfulfilled of implementing comprehensive media reforms before the next elections.  — ZLHR

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