Zim media's dilemma

HARARE - In the immediate aftermath of this year’s World Press Freedom Day commemorations, one is struck by the serious possibility that there are too many interpretations of the meaning of media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information.

This, despite the fact that the new Constitution guarantees these same said rights in Sections 61 and 62 of the Bill of Rights respectively.

Furthermore, the willingness of the ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services to have broad consultations on issues affecting the media is not necessarily shared either in Cabinet or by the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP).

Hence there is a general insistence by the ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs to retain clauses in Acts of Parliament that continue to criminalise freedom of expression. Or the unfortunate banning of a Zimbabwe Association of Community Radio Stations (Zacras) and Media Alliance of Zimbabwe march on World Press Freedom Day by the police in the capital city.

Add to this the perhaps necessarily “cautious” response by journalists and media organisations to the currently ambiguous policy framework  for fear of scuttling government goodwill, and key issues become less clearer.

What these relatively recent developments point to is a delineation of  new thought lines over the full import of the role that the media should play under a Zanu Pf government.

It is a mixture of the old with the new.

“Old” in the sense that there is evident resistance in parts of government to decriminalise freedom of expression and of the media.

“New” in relation to an actively  quantitative approach to improving the media and its contribution to the economy as an ‘industry’ but with direct state regulation of the work of journalists.

Either way, the media is in a bit of a fix that relies more on political goodwill than democratic principle for its concerns to be addressed holistically.

It is government, and at the highest level,  that must agree to repeal or amend repressive legislation such as Aippa, Posa and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Acts.

And in doing so, government has sought the direct input of not only media stakeholders but also the public through the Information Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI).

Because the latter’s full terms of reference have not officially been made public, it can only be surmised that they intend to establish a “common ground” media reform agenda.

Whether this “common ground” leans more in government’s favour is perhaps something to be left to hindsight.

The dilemma however for Zimbabwe’s media with all the goings on at policy making level is that whatever possible changes that are brought to bear on media regulation via statute or “industry” considerations, these may become more or less “permanent”.

Or at least it will take a herculean task to revisit and change them.

To therefore say the media has to be lucid on what it wants in relation to policy reform would be a literal understatement. It has to be certain beyond reasonable doubt and ambiguity together with attendant fine details in its demands on the state.

Even where key media organisations are part of IMPI, their participation  should be premised on ensuring that their democratic principles are not compromised by working directly with government or on the basis of an incremental framework that leads to regression.

There are key elements that must be considered in trying to establish a somewhat consensus-based holistic way forward.

These include having a firm understanding that what the new constitution offers is flawed in relation to media freedom. It gives with one hand and takes away with the other through not only retaining state regulation of the media in section 248 which establishes a Zimbabwe Media Commission (with the possibility of continued criminalisation of the media).

But also through Section 86 of the Bill of Rights which does not list freedom of expression or media freedom as ones that cannot be tampered with should the state deem it necessary to do so.

It is perhaps the reform or repeal of  existing enabling Acts of Parliament that will, in the final analysis, be the determinants of any changes to media regulation, with the devil being particularly in the detail of alternative legal frameworks. 

And in order to be able to give less rhetorical input, media stakeholders have to be very focused on the details of their profession’s/industry’s propositions and principles.

All ranging from media training through to broadcasting/telecommunications; access to information,; media self regulation; national employment councils for journalists;  media owners interests; media diversity; gender in the media; decriminalisation of the media; ICTs and above all serving the democratic public interest.

All of these key sectors need to considered holistically as they are all now interlinked and must be spoken to with, as far as is democratically possible, with a united voice.

Given the fact that the last three years in our country’s politics have been referred to as being those of “opportunity”, the media has to deal the hand that it has been dealt.

Both by way of the new Constitution, but also by way of government intentions and a broader vision for the democratisation of the media in Zimbabwe.

This however, does not mean the hand must be dealt with casually or without firm commitment to democratic principles, media professionalism or in a bid to settle old scores.

Where the media rises above the political fray and commits to its specific democratic values as a profession, history will absolve it.

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