US encourage Zimbabwe to allow media plurality

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The United States Embassy has encouraged Zimbabwe to accept diverse and plural voices in the media to facilitate the free flow of information and promote debate.

“The experience of the past shows that government controlled media can exist, and compete, with independent media in the daily newspaper market,” said U.S. Ambassador Charles Ray at a ceremony to commemorate World Press Freedom Day on Monday.

World Press Freedom Day is celebrated across the globe every May 3rd, representing an opportunity to commemorate the fundamental principles of press freedom and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The event in Harare was supported by the U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Section and co-hosted by the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA- Zimbabwe) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Over 120 individuals attended the commemoration, representing civil society organizations, the international and diplomatic community and journalists.

“In the 21st century, the free flow of information and ideas within countries and across international borders can be a powerful force for understanding and positive change,” said Ambassador Ray. The U.S. Ambassador pledged his country’s commitment to promoting media freedom “through… diplomatic efforts and…exchange and assistance programs, working in partnership with non-governmental organizations.”

Bruce Wharton, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy, spoke about the U.S. government’s experience working with online media. In its 2009 prison census, the Center for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) found that at least 68 bloggers, Web-based reporters, and online editors are under arrest worldwide, constituting about half of all journalists now in jail, noted Wharton.

“Online journalism is big, it’s growing fast, growing in power, it’s messy and it looks a whole lot to me like real participatory democracy,” said Wharton.

Jameson Timba, Deputy Minister of Information, Media and Publicity, said the journey towards press freedom in Zimbabwe had been “slow, arduous, painful and frustrating both physically and mentally.” He noted that the delay in setting up media regulatory bodies is inexcusable and called on the Zimbabwe Media Commission to exercise its functions independently.

“We have committed ourselves as government to replace AIPPA with two media bills- the Media Practitioners Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill,” said Timba.

Veteran journalists Andrew Moyse and William Saidi described Zimbabwe’s press freedom record as turbulent and called for the reform of media laws restricting the free flow of information.

“Any reform to AIPPA (the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) has been made all the more difficult because it has been drafted into constitutional amendment no. 19. This means it cannot be changed without a constitutional amendment,” said Moyse, who is coordinator at MMPZ.

Saidi, who is also MISA Zimbabwe’s Writer in Residence Fellow, chronicled his experience as a journalist since the 1950s, including visits to the United States, and said the first duty of journalism is telling the truth.

“You may be bashed and so on, but as long as you know that you are vehicles of change, you should be satisfied,” concluded Saidi. He emphasized the media’s role in exposing scandals, citing the Watergate scandal in the U.S. and the Willowgate scandal in Zimbabwe as examples.

In line with UNESCO’s theme, the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Harare focused on the importance of freedom of information as an integral part of freedom of expression and as a contributor to democratic governance.

MMPZ showcased an exhibition featuring newspapers and radio stations in five Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries- South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Malawi and Zimbabwe. A quiz show on the media environment, ethics and personalities was won by Jennifer Dube, a reporter with the Standard newspaper.