Alignment of media laws urgent

AS mentioned in the 2013 state of the media report, the coming into being of Zimbabwe’s new homegrown Constitution which, among other progressive provisions, now explicitly guarantees the right to media freedom and citizens’ right to access information, offer immense opportunity for the realignment of the country’s repressive media laws with new constitutional provisions.

That did not happen during the course of the first session of the eighth Parliament of Zimbabwe which officially got underway on September 18 2013 following Zanu PF’s majority victory in the elections of the same year.

It is therefore, easy to discern the lack of political will to undertake the expected media, freedom of expression and access to information legislative reforms to give effect to the same constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms.

Telling in that regard is the fact that when President Robert Mugabe officially opened the second session of the eighth Parliament on October 28 2014, he unveiled 15 Bills that would be tabled during the session for alignment with the new constitution.gloomy-Ethio-press

However, of the 15, none relates or arises from the need to foster media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information by amending or repealing the afore-mentioned laws.

The closest there has been to the expected reforms are statements that Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) is among the 400-plus laws that are being subjected to scrutiny for realignment by an inter-ministerial committee.

Suffice to say there is no urgency in aligning the country’s legislative framework with the supreme charter save for official rhetoric laden with expressions of intent and promises of delivery.

Laws that were crafted under the old constitutional dispensation continue to be implemented corroding the democratic principles and human rights safeguards contained in the new Constitution.

These include explicit guarantees for media freedom, promotion and protection of freedom of expression as well as access to information.

The old legislative framework remains in place posing threats to the enjoyment of the very same rights the new Constitution seeks to promote and protect.

This legislative disjuncture has been underscored by arrests and harassment of journalists during the course of 2014 under the country’s harsh media laws.

These include the arrest of Daily News editor Stanley Gama and reporter Fungai Kwaramba under criminal defamation laws, the conviction of provincial community newspaper publisher James Muonwa under Aippa in April 2014, the raiding of community radio initiatives, Radio Dialogue and Radio Kwelaz in April and June 2014 respectively, under suspicions they were in violation of the Broadcasting Services Act.

In addition, law enforcement agents used old laws to bar marches and gatherings by media practitioners, civil society organisations and members of the public.

Several citizens have fallen foul of existing laws while exercising their right to freedom of expression through online platforms.

The old media regulatory framework continues to be used to license aspiring media owners, including private broadcasters.

It is against this reality that the statement by the media, information and broadcasting services minister Jonathan Moyo on July 3 2014 that the new Constitution takes precedence over other pieces of legislation in regulating the media space – though sending a positive message – has caused more confusion and exposes seeming disharmony within government and state institutions in interpreting and implementing provisions of the new constitution. (Moyo was addressing the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media, Information and Broadcasting Services in Harare).

Although Moyo insisted during the same parliamentary address that the problem is not with the law but practice, it is Misa-Zimbabwe’s considered view that as long as there is no urgent holistic review of the legislative framework in accordance with the new constitution, the implementation of the constitution will remain mired in confusion and subject to individual interpretation of the law.

This creates legislative chaos whereby those holding public office including law enforcement agents can easily resort to the old constitutional dispensation and use myriad instruments to curtail citizens’ liberties, including their right to freedom of expression, when called to account or when threatened by media and public scrutiny.

It is Misa-Zimbabwe’s hope that the government-sanctioned Information and Media Panel of Inquiry findings will culminate in progressive recommendations in addressing the legislative discord in the exercise of freedom of expression and that in turn, government urgently expedites the ongoing process of aligning the country’s media laws with the constitution.

It is only through an unambiguous and precise legislative framework that Zimbabweans can fully realise their constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, privacy of their communication, access to information and media freedom.

While Zimbabwe now boasts a plethora of print media houses, the long-term viability of newspaper companies is threatened due to the underperforming economy which is the source for advertising revenue.

The largest newspaper stable, the State-controlled Zimpapers, publishers of The Herald, Sunday Mail, Chronicle, Manica Post, Sunday News, H-Metro, B-Metro and StarFM, among others, recorded a $1,417 million loss after tax in the half-year ended June 30 2014 from a positive out turn of $358 000 the previous year as revenue tumbled due to high finance costs and a worsening economic environment.

Zimpapers operates 12 publications, a commercial printing press, a radio station and two digital platforms.

Revenue declined by six percent to $21 million in the prior year while gross profit declined to $16,2 million from $16,5 million.

Chairperson Charles Utete said the company’s current liabilities stand at $21,7 million, exceeding its current assets by $8,1 million because of internal and external obligations which are difficult to liquidate.

This scenario paints a gloomy picture on the future viability and sustainability of newspaper companies with several of them struggling to break even resulting in downsizing of staff and late payments of salaries.

Privately-owned weekly newspapers that fill the gap at provincial community levels in terms of citizens’ right to access to information are literally struggling with the majority now publishing fortnightly instead of weekly.

Generally, the Zimbabwean journalist is now a depressed lot due to slashed salaries, late payments and poor working conditions. With the gloomy economic outlook for 2015 in the wake of company closures, it is feared some of the papers might be forced to close shop.

The situation is particularly dire for the publications as advertisers turn to the national circulating giants and the new online platforms.

This negative outlook for 2015 is chilling to contemplate given that where there is limited plurality and diversity of information platforms, the State often controls the public sphere by using the media it controls to set the agenda and suffocates citizens with one-sided narratives on matters affecting them.

The low morale among journalists compounded by the State’s continued stranglehold on Zimpapers and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, contributed immensely to the continued decline in professional journalism in Zimbabwe.

The long and short of this situation which requires serious attention, is that journalism in Zimbabwe is on the precipice as epitomised by partisan reportage along party political affiliations, in blatant disregard of the codes and ethics of the profession.

Quality of information is thus compromised thereby short-changing readers and Zimbabwean citizens when it comes to reliability of information upon which they could make informed decisions on issues that affect their daily lives.

Zimbabwean newspapers therefore need to revisit their business sustainability models for them to survive the economic hardships at a time when the majority of companies are operating on shoestring budgets.

Misa-Zimbabwe. Email: misa@misazim.co.zw

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