2017 poses challenges for Zim scribes

HARARE - As with any other campaign year, 2017 will be a difficult year for Zimbabwean journalists who will face the prospects of being victimised by political activists and security agencies, national director of MISA-Zimbabwe Nhlanhla Ngwenya told the Daily News recently.

Ngwenya said last year’s protests saw 31 journalists being victimised mostly by state security agencies and with the 2018 elections looming in which Zanu PF wants to retain power at all costs while the opposition wants to gain power, the political campaigns will be tension filled and the journalists covering the events will be victims.

The MISA-Zimbabwe national director said 2017 is the year that Zimbabweans have to free the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) from the bondage of those in power and that people should reclaim the station so that it becomes a voice for everyone.

The Daily News Assistant Editor Maxwell Sibanda spoke to Ngwenya on these and several other media related issues and below are some extracts from the interview.

Q: As we recently closed the year 2016 what were some of the media fraternity's expectations that you think were not met?

A: Firstly, we expected to see a commitment and push for the adoption of the IMPI report recommendations which remains an outstanding issue to date. In 2015 government had actually pledged to facilitate a discussion or engagement to map out priority areas with meetings set for 2016 that would set in motion a media reform agenda. The meeting according to government was meant to inform priority areas for media reform and the fact that the engagement did not happen means everything has been put on hold. Secondly, while 2016 witnessed the launch of provincial radio stations which was a good development in so far as providing diverse broadcasting and multiple stations, the issue remains that this did not appear genuinely independent. There is a strong perception that the new radio stations are linked to the state, their being proxies of state actors makes their credibility doubtful. It is something that as we move forward needs to be looked at, I mean the need for transparency in the licencing process that will result in genuinely independent broadcasters.

Q: But how can we make sure that this process is not biased, what do we need to do?

A: I think it is both structural and operational. We need to review our legislative framework because what has happened is while the constitution talks about the need of independent broadcasters, the process used to vet and adjudicate is not transparent. It is open to manipulation by the executive and this is why we have this controversial outcomes. We need to start from the basics and build a legislative infrastructure that will ensure the process is transparent, that will ensure accountability in terms of adjudication process which will result in fair and acceptable outcomes.Such a legislative process should make sure that the appointing authority, the regulator is not accountable to a single ministry. It should be a parliamentary process because at the moment the Broadcasting Service Act makes the appointing authority vulnerable to political manipulation. My take is that it should be a parliamentary process that can only happen if we come up with a strong law.

Q: And the issue of community radios stations, there seems to be no movement in terms of licensing them, what could be the problem?

A: The last time we engaged officials from the Ministry of Information the information we got is that government is still is awaiting finalisation of the digitalisation process which process will facilitate the licensing of community radio stations. But we are told the digitalisation process is still far away in terms of processing.This slow pace will also delay a lot of things because we haven’t moved to the digital platform as anticipated which allows community radio stations mapping. The digitalisation has many positives and these include the release of more television stations. The process’ completion will also open white spaces that will enable the increase in internet infrastructure in areas where it is not accessible.

Q: Is this excuse genuine; that community radio licenses are not being issued because government has not finalised the digitalisation process?

A: I do not understand why they are linking digital migration to the issuing of community radio stations because as we speak we have quite a number of committees ready to roll out these stations and government should issue them licenses just like they did all the other radio stations. It defeats the whole purpose of empowering the ordinary citizens. Instead of Zimbabweans enjoying their right to broadcast and tell their own stories, it is now on the whims of government. I believe it is a wrong approach and we hope this year government will look into this matter.

Q: But while government has issued more radio station licenses, it seems most of the entities are failing to take off with some being accused of not being independent from the state…

A: You would recall that some of them are operating within Zimpapers which vindicates long standing perceptions that they are not independent from the state. We have always had doubts because some of the stations are operating from public broadcaster premises controlled by the state – how do you have the state accommodating genuinely independent or alternative radio stations?

Q: So you are saying there is no diversity at all regardless of the issuing of these new licenses?

A: What we have witnessed is the expansion of media houses related to or linked or controlled by the state and nothing more than that.

Q: Any chances of media reforms this year?

A: The challenge of the media reform agenda is that as we move towards the 2018 elections I see a situation were demands for media reform will be put on the back banner as the political tensions rise. We know that Zanu PF prioritises control of information ahead of elections and they will not be in a position to further liberalise the media towards the vote. What we will see are some superficial reforms, remember AIPPA as a law was subjected to more than three amendments since its adoption but that did not substantially deal with the law and the challenges to Zimbabweans have not changed, but if you go to  legislative records it is amended. This year they will tinker with bits and pieces of laws and not the fundamentals because the intention is not to genuinely align laws to constitution but that it is all about power games. The Computer and Cyber bill will be added on other pieces of laws because the president mentioned it when he opened parliament saying the current session will have to deal with it. The Ministry of Information has identified AIPPA as in need of review but they haven’t shared the text with interested stakeholders.

Q: This year is campaign year, how do you see journalists’ operational terrain?

A: I think we should never be blind to the fact that media freedom in this country and that journalists’ ability to conduct their business is a function of the prevailing political temperature. As MISA-Zimbabwe we have over the years witnessed a surge in the number of journalists being harassed, beaten, illegally detained as we approach elections and this year will not be an exception. There seems to be a culture of impunity to those who attack journalists and known violators are still roaming the streets free. We still have media houses that were bombed and as we draw closer to the elections which will be tension filled we will definitely see a surge in harassments. The perpetrators of violence against journalists have been political activists and of late it has been the police. Last year’s protests saw 31 journalists victimised while covering the events and imagine what will happen this year when we have a campaign in which the governing party Zanu PF would like to retain power by all means while the opposition wants to gain power by all means – the media will be a casualty of course and we are aware of this expected occurrence.

Q: How are you as media practitioners going to deal with this?

A: Last year we engaged the police because we identified them as the main culprit if you look at the reported 31 cases.  We had a single meeting with the police and we are also going to continue engaging them. We are also going to equip journalists with safety and security tips because there are instances where we feel journos need to safeguard themselves. We have also noticed this tendency to criminalise the work of journalists, especially those from the independent media because if you look at the 31 journalists victimised last year no one is from the public media. We also have instances were opposition political parties and activities view journalists from the public media with suspicion and we are working to correct that perception as well. Journalists are not employed to gloss over politicians, they are there to report the truth, they are just messengers. There is no need to shoot the messenger. We are also looking at introducing clearly labelled bibs and helmets as part and parcel of measures to equip journalists, but at the end of the day it will be the scribes who will prescribe what exactly they would want because there are some who believe such measures will expose them to political thugs.

Q: And what is your parting shot?

A: I think Zimbabweans have tendered to give up on the broadcaster, ZBC but it is critical that we congregate around demanding that the broadcaster become a truly public entity whose obligations are to serve the people regardless of political affiliation. ZBC has to serve all shapes and colour of thought. It has to desist from being a megaphone of those in power. Let us all use 2017 to rebuild ZBC and ensure that it lives its mandate. ZBC has to offer equal coverage of all political thought; this should not be the duty of the private media but of the public broadcaster. We do not want to keep getting the same brazen reports as in past elections that ZBC is biased towards those in power, we need to reclaim it and I hope Zimbabweans will have the courage to really demand that it becomes a true public broadcaster.

Q: How can this be done?

A:  If there is will and consensus among Zimbabweans it can be done. We want at ZBC is to see the broadcaster reforming the governing and operational structures. It has to make the appointment of governors be truly representative of Zimbabweans and let it be on merit not political affiliation and closeness to those in power. Why is it that every information minister that comes along brings a new board if it is on merit, professionalism and competency? Clearly there is a problem because here it seems the appointment follows the politics not service.  We should demand a governing structure that follows public service and if we do that everything falls into place when driven by professionals, the operation beat falls in place.

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