As Zimbabwean media stakeholders joined their international colleagues in celebrating Press Freedom Day last week, I could not help but frown at two strategic positions whose promises to create a media we all want are daily fading, thanks to calculated political moves by an authoritarian state.
The first is the enactment of a new Constitution with somewhat liberal media provisions whose full beauty we are yet to enjoy, and the other is Professor Jonathan Moyo’s “grand re-entry” into government to lead the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services.
Starting with the Constitution, it’s a whole 21 months, and counting, since we got the new governance charter, which came into full effect on August 6 2013, as Zanu PF leader Robert Mugabe took the oath of office as President of the Republic of Zimbabwe. Now to think that we are still to enjoy the full import of our Constitution 21 months later, because there are intervening pieces of mad legislation that should have automatically fallen aside, is ludicrous.
The truth is with section 61 of the Constitution, which defines anew and in a reasonable way the concept of media freedom, some pieces of legislation, namely Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), Public Order and Security Act (Posa), the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), Official Secrets Act, and the Interception of Communication Act, should have spectacularly fallen off our statutes because most of their provisions are ultra vires the Constitution.
Our collective problem today as we commemorated Press freedom in Zimbabwe, almost two years since Section 61 came to life, is that the few, but powerful information and media gatekeepers read and refer more to the otherwise unconstitutional and immoral pieces of legislation than the actual Constitution. And because they deliberately read and refer to the wrong legal texts, the only appropriate song to sing last week for media stakeholders was “It’s not yet Uhuru”.
The second, and more saddening reality of our situation as we celebrated Press Freedom Day the entire last week, was that the Moyo, who arrived with much promise, is fast blowing from hot to cold.
The minister arrived for his second coming with the promise of heaven, thanks to his call for inclusivity, engagement and promises for reform.
With media stakeholders still reflecting on media freedom, it wouldn’t be amiss to do a public appraisal of his role in promoting media freedom, 21 months after he collected his first pay cheque from our government.
For all the drama and attention that follows his every action and word, little has changed on the media space in the country since Moyo took office. ZBC is still ZBC and the ubiquitous Zimpapers has not moved beyond its “us-and-them” attitude towards Zimbabweans of diverse but legal political persuasions.
Moyo has opened doors for engagement to many media stakeholders, lambasted the ZRP for blocking a Press Freedom Day march last year, is very available on social media, and has stood by media stakeholders challenging the defamation laws in the courts.
I have not mentioned, as a plus, his role in setting up and sustaining the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI). IMPI is not the first inquiry we have had in this country. Precedent was set somehow that nothing material comes out of these inquiries. So unless and until IMPI is implemented, it will remain a useless exercise undertaken for political expediency.
All things being constant, Moyo still has more than 36 months to go as minister and in order to have a lasting impact on media freedom in the country; not purely as a way of exorcising his past ghost, but as a way of upholding the Constitution, he has to deliver to the nation, amongst other things, the following five “freedoms”, lest his current reign will be remembered for generating more sound than heat.
The first freedom the Zimbabwean media want is to be set loose from the unconstitutional and immoral laws that curtail media freedom. These are Aippa, Posa, BSA, Official Secrets Act, and the Interception of Communication Act. The IMPI report has done some homework already on these.
The second freedom must come by disentangling ZBC from the clutches of political vampires who spew out a narrow and one-sided nationalist discourse. The political chancers who control ZBC have always put in place some not-so-creative political commissars to run the station.
I must state it clearly here that a healthy and watchable ZBC is a clear sign of our sovereignty, and a fulfilment of the constitutional requirement for access to information. Why do we have to watch foreign stations always, including being exposed to Joburg and Cape Town weather reports when some of us have no plans to leave Harare?
The third freedom which the minister must grant, which is closely linked to the ZBC one, concerns Zimpapers, whose flagship product, The Herald, always fights for the-favourite-child tag with The People’s Voice in Zanu PF’s household. That needs not be the case. Zimpapers can be patriotic, nationalistic, without being the mouthpiece of a political party, worse still of a fraction within that party.
The fourth freedom the media and Zimbabweans need now has to do with the board that licences broadcasting players in this country, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ). The illegally constituted BAZ we have today came into being to fulfil a clear legal requirement of promoting a plural and diverse broadcast media in Zimbabwe. But they have done the opposite by entrenching monopoly.
I submit that BAZ dismally failed the nation when they awarded eight local commercial licences to players not only closely linked to the State, but who were on the field of play already, donning different uniforms, but playing the same game.
To free the broadcasting arena, making it plural and diverse in composition, the minister may have to dissolve the current BAZ and allows Parliament, as mandated by the law, to lead in the appointment of a new board that must be accountable to, but not remote-controlled, by government.
If that happens, we may even have as a result a three-tier broadcasting arrangement, with genuine community radio complementing the commercial stations and the public broadcaster.
The fifth freedom Moyo must grant Zimbabweans is the freedom to determine the media they want as espoused in the IMPI recommendations. Good public policymaking relies on public consultation. Some citizens believe IMPI died with the handing over of its findings and recommendations to Moyo in Harare. No one should fault them because government, under its current leader, has commissioned a number of inquiries whose findings never saw the light of day.I believe IMPI was never merely for political expedience. And, it is up to Moyo to either satisfy or betray the trust.
lGift Mambipiri is a Kadoma-based writer. He writes in his personal capacity.