HARARE – Five years after the African Union Election Observation Mission (AUEOM) made recommendations on improving the state of the media in Zimbabwe, journalists and media practitioners are concerned that government is still to implement the envisaged media reforms.
After the 2013 general elections, AUEOM made recommendations that were meant to complement media rights enshrined in Zimbabwe’s Constitution gazetted shortly before the last harmonised elections.
With the elections in a few months’ time, journalists and media practitioners have lost hope that any meaningful media reforms will be implemented.
Misa-Zimbabwe recently wrote to Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) executive secretary Stergomena Lawrence Tax stating government has the obligation and responsibility to implement the reforms in question without any further delay.
“This obligation arises from the country’s Constitution as well as regional instruments such as the Sadc Principles and Guidelines governing democratic elections and the African charter on Democracy Elections and Governance,” Misa-Zimbabwe chairperson Golden Maunganidze wrote.
Maunganidze sought to draw Sadc’s attention to the need for alignment of media laws with the Constitution; partisan reporting by the public broadcaster; liberalisation of radio and television ownership; safety and security of journalists and; dual regulation and or accreditation of journalists covering elections.
“In its 2013 observation, the AUEOM took cognisance of several interlocutors’ views that fundamental freedoms may be curtailed should there be no further review of the provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), and the manner in which they were being implemented.
“Laws such as the BSA, Posa, along with the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), still contain provisions which indisputably violate fundamental rights to privacy, freedom of expression and access to information.
“The protection of these fundamental rights is key to a robust democratic media environment,” said Maunganidze.
He said while Section 160J of Zimbabwe’s Electoral Act states that during an election period, broadcasters and print publishers must ensure that all political parties and candidates are treated equitably in their news media, concerns have been raised about the public broadcaster’s highly- partisan coverage of the ruling political party to the exclusion of opposition political parties and other dissenting voices and views.
“This position is reiterated in Article 17(3) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance which calls for the State broadcaster to provide a balanced platform for all competing parties and alternative voices.
“The AUEOM’s 2013 observation that the national broadcaster tended to provide live and in-depth coverage largely to a single political party, remains true to this day.
“Misa-Zimbabwe submits and urges the urgent transformation of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) into a truly independent and representative public broadcaster.”
In its report on the 2013 elections, the AUEOM recommended that the provisions of the BSA be fully implemented to enable the liberalisation of radio and television ownership, thereby providing a broader platform for all stakeholders to voice their opinions, consistent with the stipulations of the new Constitution.
The government is still to license community radio stations and while licences have been granted to national and regional commercial radio stations, however, the majority of these licences were given to radio stations owned by State-owned enterprises and those perceived as being politically connected.
Media practitioner Patience Zirima doesn’t see any media reforms ahead of this year’s polls as we are just three months away.
“There are outstanding issues that need to be addressed. Top of the list is the performance of the State-owned media in providing all political players with equitable access to the media, and ensuring that diverse voices and views are represented in the media.
“The last election evidence shows that there is still unequal representation of political players in the news, with Zanu PF continuing to get the lion’s share of all space in the State-owned media in comparison to other political parties.
“This is not something that would require a long time to implement and is a quick win, should reforms be instituted,” said Zirima.
She added that other issues that include the licensing of community radio, other independent broadcasting players, and the amendment of laws such as Aippa to allow greater freedom of expression may take a longer time to address, and I don’t think this will happen before elections.
Veteran broadcaster John Masuku said so far he hasn’t seen any political commitment towards serious media reforms from the new government.
“Actually, public media is giving more coverage to the ruling party and of late the military has also gained traction.
“The media reforms and alignment of laws to the now not so new Constitution mantras have been shouted about several times in meetings, without being taken seriously by the implementers —the government,” said Masuku.
Media practitioner Rashweat Mukundu said the transformation of the ZBC into a public broadcaster representing the diversity of our voices is a major media reform issue that can be done at the stroke of a pen, by the government.
“This will go a long way in making the coming elections free and fair by allowing space to all political voices on the State broadcaster.
“There is need to do away with the burden of accreditation by Zec and allow journalists accredited by the ZMC to work and access election spaces.
“Above all, the broadcasting sector especially television and community radio sectors must be opened.
“Zimbabwe stands with Swaziland on the pedestal of infamy as the only Sadc countries with archaic and retrogressive broadcasting laws that politically limit the number of players for no other reason than political interests.
“This makes our policy makers in the ministry of Information political agents and not development-oriented agents,” said Mukundu.
Media Alliance of Zimbabwe programmes manager Nigel Nyamutumbu said there is evident lack of political will to reform the media before the impeding elections.
“Despite pronouncements to the effect that government is going to reform undemocratic laws governing the media, there hasn’t been any movement by the (Emmerson) Mnangagwa administration to translate their commitment to actual implementation.
“The State continues to control the public broadcaster and while there is plurality in the radio broadcasting industry there is no diversity and the content is partisan,” said Nyamutumbu.
He added that government needs to urgently reform the laws, transform the public broadcaster, ensure a safe working environment for the media and implement measures that guarantee citizens access to information and freely express themselves on and offline.
“There needs to be a democratic regulatory framework for the media and competent mechanism to monitor the media and complaints against the media raised by political actors and citizens must be handled expeditiously and professionally,” said Nyamutumbu.
Media lawyer Jacqueline Chikakano, however, believes there is a high probability that we may see media law reforms before the elections.
“From my knowledge, the constitutional alignment programme is still ongoing and a look at the Bill tracker that indicates progress on this project (the bill tracker is found on the Ministry of justice website under IMT), indicates that media laws such as Aippa and the BSA are yet to be aligned and I think that as we go into the campaign period soon, the government and the ruling party may feel the need to push for progress on some of these laws although we can’t say to what extent they might effect the changes,” said Chikakano.
In terms of priority for her, Aippa is a critical law that requires reform.
“If it is amended to align it to the Constitution, then it would go a long way in making the right to information more accessible and enjoyed especially by the media and the public, the latter also benefiting from the products of the former.
“This is because the right to information as provided for in the Constitution is much wider than that provided for currently under Aippa and if Aippa is amended to match the provisions of section 61 of the Constitution, then this would enhance access to and dissemination of information which is critical for the public to make informed decisions as we go into the elections and beyond that.
“Similarly the BSA as well as the ZBC Commercialisation Act also requires a review in line with the expanded rights in the constitution which include editorial independence for state owned media.
“This is critical especially for the ZBC which is a critical information dissemination tool that is also widely and easily accessible to many Zimbabweans.”
Chikakano added that among other reasons why the identified laws require reform, “in my opinion if they are revised to align them with the Constitution, it will go a long way in amongst other things, opening up the airwaves particularly the public broadcaster and facilitating dissemination of public interest information which is critical as well go into the polls information.” – Daily News