Why freedom of the press matters

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During the past several years, press freedom in Zimbabwe has been under severe threat thereby limiting journalists’ ability to fully tell the Zimbabwean story in a free atmosphere.

An international watchdog, Freedom House, ranked the country’s press freedom as the lowest in the southern African region in 2010.

It shared the 181st position with war-torn Somalia out of 191 countries.

According to Freedom House’s 2010 report on Zimbabwe, despite constitutional provisions for freedom of expression, a draconian legal framework continues to inhibit the activities of journalists.

“The 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) requires all journalists and media companies to register with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (Mic) 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 (Posa), 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 stories that may ruffle feathers of those in power yet in the public interest. In its report, Freedom House noted that many journalists, especially in the privately-owned media practice extensive self-censorship.

Journalism in Zimbabwe can be life-threatening. The bombing of The Daily News facilities clearly demonstrates that forces had emerged in the country determined to eternally silence the press.
The Internet — in many ways seen as the killer of print products in many parts of the world — brilliantly saved the day by offering an alternative platform for journalists to exercise their privilege.

Draconian media laws combined with difficult economic conditions forced many local journalists to express themselves freely through online news platforms.

However, the quality of news reports on some of the news site was highly questionable. Besides access to the Internet is 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.

Broadcasting in Zimbabwe remains an area where freedom of the press is a pipedream. According to Freedom House’s 2010 report, broadcasting licences have been consistently denied to privately owned television and radio stations.

“Access to broadcast media in rural areas is hampered by deteriorating equipment and a lack of transmission sites; according to Misa, only 30% of the country enjoys radio and television reception, although the government has reached an agreement with China to help upgrade this infrastructure,” the report stated.

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

Press freedom locally is in a very precarious state. According to Unesco experts, freedom of the press 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. In Zimbabwe, we have to add the protection of media facilities.

The recent ransacking of computers at NewsDay is clearly an affront to press freedom.

We should not destroy media outlets that facilitate the free flow of ideas that is so essential to building our society.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “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.”