HARARE – There was much trepidation among Zimbabwean journalists and publishers when Jonathan Moyo was recently appointed Media, Information and Broadcasting Services minister.
This understandable fear stemmed from Moyo’s legacy in this ministry a decade ago, a dark period in the country’s post-independent history that witnessed the forced closure of four newspapers by the government — notably the Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday — as well as arbitrary arrests and wanton harassment of journalists as a result of the enactment of tough new media laws during that time.
Chief among the nefarious laws that were zealously foisted upon the media industry, with devastating consequences, were the misnamed Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA).
Given this ugly background then, it is little wonder that Moyo’s latest appointment to the ministry was met with a mixture of both fear and disbelief — amid concerns that this would once again plunge the media industry into another mega crisis.
But to many people’s surprise, Moyo has quickly extended the olive branch to the media fraternity, amid indications that he wants to work with the industry and take it forward this time around.
Indeed, he has been engaging all relevant stakeholders in seemingly earnest dialogue — which has won him praise from both the industry and analysts.
His new “let’s find each other” mantra, backed by even-handed visits to both public and private media newsrooms — including a highly public and hugely symbolic one to the Daily News — have certainly created the positive impression, at least thus far, that these engagements are not merely cheap political grandstanding.
It would appear that in addition to wanting a better relationship with the media this time around, Moyo does have another subtle agenda — a debatable one to nudge the media to adopt “an identity that is Zimbabwean”.
In his view, this entails interrogating issues “honestly” while retaining “national interest” — minus the debilitating media and political polarisation of the past 15 years or so which the country is battling to shed off.
In a further surprising but welcome move, the Zanu PF politburo member has condemned the existence and use of criminal defamation laws which he says have no place in Zimbabwean society.
Whether by coincidence or design, the law was recently red-carded by the Constitutional Court after journalists who had fallen foul of it took it up to the highest court in the land.
In his engagements with the media, Moyo has also earned kudos for saying that he wants to mitigate some of the problems afflicting the printing and publishing industry, where the cost of newsprint and other imported inputs is threatening the viability of some players in the sector — a few of whom have given notice of looming retrenchments.
This is a flying start by the once-disliked minister, by any political measure.
The debate within the industry and among many Zimbabweans who have been pleasantly surprised by the “new” Moyo is what to make of his actions and words to date, and how to respond to them.
One of the more dominant schools of thought within the journalistic fraternity is that it is imperative that media companies and other stakeholders seize the opportunity presented by the “new” Moyo to foster an environment that results in a win-win situation for both the industry and the country as Zimbabwe endeavours to crawl back to normalcy after 15 years of political and economic anarchy.
But this is easier said than done.
The fact is that Zimbabweans crave a political environment and laws that promote freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, which also allows real access to information — not the AIPPA way — to the generality of the public.
Indeed, AIPPA, BSA and the equally notorious Public Order and Security Act (POSA) remain on the statute books and an affront to our national quests for a deep and inclusive democracy.
The amendments of 2007 which created the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), which licences journalists and media houses to practice, were not only cosmetic, they did not address fundamental issues previously raised in a bid to truly free the industry from government shackles.
Those cosmetic amendments merely replaced the much-disliked former licensing authority, the Media Information Commission (MIC) with the ZMC — which retained virtually all of the MIC’s functions which inhibit the freedom of the press in this country.
The ZMC still accredits journalists, licences media houses and deals with “complaints” against the media — when the industry is agitating for less government interference and more self regulation.
Most worryingly for the industry, the ZMC’s Media Council was specifically set up last year to discipline journalists, among other functions that include introducing a code of conduct over and above what exists within the broad ZMC framework.
This was despite the existence of a fairly promising self regulatory body, the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ).
Among its roles, the widely supported VMCZ endeavours to promote the highest ethical and professional journalistic standards; uphold the right of Zimbabweans to be accurately and fairly informed on matters of public and general interest; and provide an independent and effective channel through which to consider, investigate and resolve complaints about the conduct of the print and broadcasting media.
The key in the VMCZ process is that there is no criminalisation of journalism, which is what AIPPA, through the ZMC and Media Council of Zimbabwe effectively seek to enforce.
All the issues above notwithstanding, it is still very important that stakeholders in the industry respond positively to Moyo’s engagement efforts, by — among other things — highlighting these impediments to a free local media that are negatively affecting the work of journalists.
Indeed, not joining hands with the minister to lobby Parliament and other opinion leaders in the country about these retrogressive laws, so that they are struck off our statute books, could be tantamount to the industry burying its head in the sand, to its obvious detriment.
For example, it is absolutely not right that AIPPA criminalises and deems some information that is of huge public interest to be out of bounds because it allegedly compromises both national interest and national security.
This is despite specific provisions in the country’s new Constitution that not just deal with such issues more rationally, but also broadly encourage the free flow of information.
It also can not be right that the right to access to information is currently not extend to foreigners in our country, whereas in other countries, a request for information is granted to virtually everyone without undue restrictions.
Similarly, it is hugely problematic that a journalist or member of the public showing interest in a particular piece of information may have to wait for 30 days before a head of that particular wing of say government, or the private sector for that matter, responds to the request.
Needless to say, this is in complete violation of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa (the Banjul Declaration) which provides in its Article 4 that: “Everyone has the right to access information held by public/private bodies which is necessary for the exercise or protection of any right”.
The situation is not any better with regards to amendments also made to the BSA in 2007, which retained the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), which regulates and controls the sector — amid very direct political influence.
Among its terms and conditions of awarding licensing, the BSA demands an outline of programming and content from applicants, with a clear and overt intention to influence what is acceptable to it for airing or not.
This is patently undemocratic.
In addition, while Zimbabweans domiciled outside the country are allowed to invest in the broadcast industry, the fees are high and very restrictive.
Thus, instead of promoting pluralism and liberalisation in the broadcasting services sector, the fee structure effectively discourages what it seeks to achieve.
It has also been pointed out that the BSA violates the African Charter on broadcasting, which seeks to create a three-tier broadcasting system, namely public, commercial and community broadcasting.
Pursuant to this, a research project was launched in Zimbabwe and other sub-Saharan Africa countries in 2008 with the aim of collecting, collating and writing up information about regulation, ownership, access, performance as well as the prospects of public broadcasting reform on the continent.
The other countries which participated in the 11-country survey were Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and South Africa.
Despite being the first to launch a book, dubbed On Air, about its findings, Zimbabwe has only licensed two radio stations — ZiFM and Star FM — both of which are either directly controlled by the government or linked very closely to leading lights in the country’s ruling party, Zanu PF.
While there have recently been fresh notices inviting applications for licences for regional radio and television stations, it is still not clear-cut that prospective broadcasters — both local and those abroad — would ‘‘meet’’ the grade if what happened last time is anything to go by.
This is all the more reason why local media houses must seize the glimmer of opportunity presented by the “new” Moyo. Not doing so would be akin to staring a gift horse in the mouth, which does not make sense.
As the saying goes the taste of the pudding is in the eating.
Thus, it is only through following through what Moyo is preaching that his bona fides and that of the Zanu PF government that he serves can be proved or disproved.
The industry cannot afford to stand on the sidelines of the rapidly changing political, technological and media sector developments locally, either because it is mesmerised by the changes or because it neither trusts Moyo nor his government.
Indeed, such a stance would present many dangers to the tottering media sector as it would provide both Moyo and Zanu PF with plausible excuses in future should things once again take a turn for the worse in our industry — as they would legitimately argue that their efforts to work with the sector were rebuffed.
Obviously, any re-engagement with Moyo and the government that is going to be meaningful on the part of the media sector should be underpinned by advocating for access to information for all, and agitating for the complete removal of all obstacles and restrictive legislation that still exists in our statute books and that hinders the freedom of the media and that of free expression.