'Align media laws with Constitution'

HARARE - Media practitioners have urged policymakers to urgently align media legislation with the current constitution to promote free journalistic enterprise, journalism safety and professionalism.

Zimbabweans approved a new Constitution in 2013 that explicitly provides for citizens’ right to access to information and also promotes the enjoyment of the right to freedom of the press under Section 61 and 62.

Nearly 95 percent of voters in a referendum approved the new charter, which was backed by President Robert Mugabe and then Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, political rivals who were forced into a power-sharing deal after disputed elections in 2008.

Media activist Tabani Moyo said it was disheartening that three years after adopting the new Constitution, Zimbabwe is still to align several of its restrictive media laws with the country’s supreme law.

“Free journalistic enterprise, journalism safety and professionalism, cannot thrive in an environment chocking with a raft of repressive media laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), Broadcasting Services Act, Interception of Communications Act, Official Secrets Act, among others,” he said.

“While the Constitution now explicitly provides for citizens’ right to access to information, the government should list the exact laws that are being reviewed in that regard by the inter-ministerial committee tasked with the realignment of laws.”

He called on government to swiftly align the country’s media laws, policy and regulatory frameworks with the new constitutional dispensation and the regional and international instruments that Zimbabwe is a State party or signatory to, and to deal with perpetrators of media violations and ensure the greatest safety and security of journalists conducting their lawful professional duties.

Misa-Zimbabwe chairperson Kumbirai Mafunda said it’s saddening that while media practitioners in other parts of the world will be celebrating World Press Freedom Day today, journalists in Zimbabwe will be taking stock of the land mines that have been planted.

“Journalists, have in recent months been targeted and are increasingly becoming endangered species once again if one considers the harassment, intimidation, arrest, prosecution and persecution of scribes from both the State-run and private media for allegedly committing flimsy offences,” Mafunda said.

“We have seen an appetite by the Harare regime to interfere with operations and the practice of journalists through attempting to impose new and illegal layers of accreditation of journalists apart from the Zimbabwe Media Commission as happened with Parliament where some zealous security agents intended to subject journalists to rigorous scrutiny including asking them to submit a police clearance,” he said.

“Recently, we also saw authorities directing journalists to first visit Harare Central Police station so that they can be ‘cleared’, whatever that means, to cover the meeting held by veterans of the country’s liberation struggle early in April. So, we have a government which is obsessed with control and licensing to an extent that it might soon impose licences on citizens to enable them to speak from wherever they are.”

He said another issue of concern is the clampdown on freelance journalists and their news portals as happened with the Media Centre and journalists who have been interrogated by police over an alleged treason case.

Misa-Zim Harare advocacy committee chairperson Garikai Chaunza said as the world marks World Press Freedom Day, The Ambassador Hotel which houses the journalists’ club, Quill, has banned journalists from carrying out media activities there.

“Their argument being that they were ordered by the police to demand police clearance from anyone doing any activities at the hotel,” he said.

“This is the highest level of curtailing press freedom and freedom to information which should be condemned.”

Media practitioner Rashweat Mukundu said without doubt, Zimbabwe has scored some positive changes in terms of media and free expression issues.

He cited provisions of the new Constitution, which are yet to be implemented — nullification of criminal defamation, and licensing of new media players.

“Grey areas include the continued existence of Aippa as well as absence of community radio stations,” Mukundu said.

“There still remains a general negative attitude towards private media voices and a noted abuse of state owned media.”

He said media licensing and journalist accreditation are not necessary in this day and age, adding multiple licensing and taxation of media houses was killing media houses financially.

“You cannot have ‘dinosaurs’ like Tafataona Mahoso running both the ZMC and Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe. Dynamism is needed,” he said.

“So far, policy makers are too politically-oriented.”

Koliwe Majama, Misa-Zimbabwe programme officer, said the media in Zimbabwe remains largely affected by the polarity of the country’s politics.

“While in the last five years there has been a ‘semblance’ of growth, particularly in the broadcasting sector with the licensing of local and national commercial radio stations, unfortunately that increase in the number does not necessarily translate to the diversity that we require,” she said.

“This is particularly so with the challenges related to editorial slant, who can access which media in terms of sources and also balanced reflection or demonstration of citizens’ opinion.”

Majama said there seems to be no political will to align media laws with the new charter.

Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) executive director Loughty Dube said: “While the Constitution is explicit in Section 61 and 62 in relation to access to information and freedom of expression, that is not translated to media laws, the majority of which are still ultra vires the Constitution.

“While the issue of media law reform is still sticky, there is also the general arrest and intimidation of media personnel that is still ongoing.”

Journalist Francis Mukuzunga said now that some of the prohibitive media laws in Zimbabwe have now been repealed and the airwaves have sort of opened up, “it now remains upon those in the profession to observe professionalism and cut out self-censorship, work on self-regulation and observe the rights and privacy of other individual in the community.”

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