Leveson report & the Zim context

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The media industry and policy makers in the United Kingdom are currently engaged in a very serious debate concerning Press regulation.

Report by Takura Zhangazha

This follows the publication of the Leveson Enquiry on Culture Practice and Ethics of the Press report late last week.

It is a recommendation that has the support of a good number of politicians in that country’s Parliament as well as that of the majority of the victims of News of the World newspaper’s phone hacking scandal.

The significance of the Leveson report will inevitably be felt beyond the borders of the UK, given the fact that a lot of governments in the world have the undemocratic tendency of continually seeking ways of restricting free media in one way or the other. And for some of these governments, where better to look than the UK, a progenitor of Parliamentary democracy.

The same report will also be the subject of debate among media owners, editors, journalists’ unions and associations but not for the same reasons as those of governments.

This is because many in the media, including UK based editors, may find the major recommendation of a statutory underpinning to independent regulation more retrogressive than progressive.

Many in the media would feel that like the proverbial camel outside the tent, once the State gets its head into the media tent, it will eventually come to repressively occupy the space of media freedom.

In the world of media academics (legal and social sciences) all of this makes for interesting new academic “fodder” around the complex issue of regulating freedom of expression, particularly so with the expansion of the internet and the decreasing distinction between electronic and print media.

This now somewhat global debate on media regulation will also come to affect Zimbabwe but, again, not necessarily for the same reasons cited above.

The fact that Zimbabwe has dual regulation of the media (both state and voluntary) means the debate may become couched in the language of protecting ‘turfs’ and seeking to justify the progressive existence of one system over the other.

It would, however, be instructive for the example of the Leveson enquiry not to be taken at face value nor out of context given the repressive media circumstances obtaining in Zimbabwe.

Where the Zimbabwean media industry and its associated stakeholders must initially draw the lesson from the Press regulation debate in the UK, it must do so on the basis of understanding the freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information culture that informs that same country.

The issue in the UK is not necessarily what was published by the media but how information was obtained illegally and without due attention to the right of individuals to privacy.

It was not about the media insulting the Queen or that country’s Prime Minister, and where the police laid charges against the editor of the News of the World, it had limited little with intending to either close down that paper by force or harass them for a story that undermined the ‘state security services’.

It is also important to tread carefully with the recommendations of the Leveson enquiry when comparing it with what obtains in Zimbabwe because our statutory media regulation laws point to the criminalisation of the media in, and of itself.

Where the British laws that led to the criminal charging of journalists are not targeting the contents of a news story but the method in which information was acquired, Zimbabwe’s lawsseek to criminally address the content of the story and arrest the editor and journalist who wrote the same.

Further still, in Zimbabwe, we must learn to address issues relating to the media and its regulation within a framework that understands the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom if we are to build a democratic society.

It should be that where we seek to review media regulation in Zimbabwe, we must have a de-politicisied debate that skirts the mistakes of the past and the progressive undertakings of the Zimbabwean media such as the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ).

We must acknowledge that the past and current relationship between the State and the media in Zimbabwe has been a completely undemocratic one. Especially where the State has been playing the role of the repressive persecutor of the media and accentuating a culture of impunity against journalists.

Where one recalls the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and how it has been retained even by the inclusive government, one can only realise that our own debate around media freedom and, or its regulation remains stymied by the over-politicisation of freedom of expression and media freedom related issues by our government.

We must strive as far as is possible to ensure the ushering in of a democratic culture around freedom of expression and media freedom before we start trying to emulate or take lessons from Leveson. This would begin by repealing AIPPA and the many other laws that impinge on media freedom and freedom of expression.

Where we seek to review media laws we must not be prisoners of opportunism and political expediency. Instead we must do so on the basis of the democratic principle and understanding the freedom of expression and media freedom are the cornerstone of any serious democracy.

Takura Zhangazha writes here in his capacity as Executive Director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ)