True media freedom needed

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The globe celebrates World Press Freedom Day today (Tuesday).

Yet, during the last few years, Press freedom in Zimbabwe has been under severe threat thereby limiting journalists’ ability to fully tell the Zimbabwean story in a free atmosphere.

According to Freedom House, Zimbabwe’s Press freedom was ranked the lowest in Southern Africa in 2010. It shared 181st position with war-torn Somalia out of 191 countries.

Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of expression, a draconian legal framework continues to inhibit the activities of journalists and media outlets.

“The 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act requires all journalists and media companies to register with the government-controlled (the then) Media and Information Commission and gives the Information minister sweeping powers to decide which publications can operate legally and who is able to work as a journalist. In addition, the Official Secrets Act, the Public Order and Security Act, and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act severely limit what journalists may publish and mandate harsh penalties—including long prison sentences—for violators,” stated the report.

Due to a legacy of persecution and violence against the media, journalists shun from writing stories that may be perceived to ruffle those in the corridors of power yet in the public interest.

Many journalists, especially in the independently-owned media, practice extensive self-censorship. Indeed journalism in Zimbabwe can be life-threatening.

We are cognisant of the fact that no story is worth dying for, but government must appreciate we have a duty to write what is happening so as to inform the public.

World Press Freedom Day is coming hardily a week after the attack on NewsDay aimed at paralysing the production of the paper.

However, we will not be deterred by these criminals who are not merely targeting NewsDay’s property, but freedom of the media.

The ransacking of computers at NewsDay in itself is clearly an affront against freedom of the Press.

We also remember the infamous bombing of the Daily News facilities.

These attacks clearly demonstrate forces have emerged in the country determined to eternally silence the Press.

It is a fact that draconian media laws combined with difficult economic conditions forced many local journalists to express themselves freely through online news platforms.

But access to the Internet is highly limited in Zimbabwe with a paltry 12% of the population having some kind of access thus limiting the impact that online journalism has on our society.

But broadcasting in Zimbabwe remains an area where media freedom is somewhat a pipedream. Broadcasting licences have been consistently denied to independently owned television and radio stations.

Sophisticated technology has reportedly been used to jam the signals of the increasingly popular foreign-based radio stations that broadcast into Zimbabwe.

So, in a word, Press freedom locally is in a very precarious state. According to Unesco, Press freedom depends on a vast array of factors.

As a social and occupational construct upheld by law, it cannot exist as such unless the people have the means to access it, including education, technology, protection of journalists, etc.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

In the same breath, there is need for the media to create a conducive working environment in which women journalists can operate without fear of sexual harassment and discrimination.

The honest truth is that NO PRESS is truly free until the voice of women is heard.