Access to information: Denying the people

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The government, non-governmental organisations and civil society need to harness the power of multimedia techniques to reach a wider audience

Out of all the dramatic fast-paced events that happened in our country this past week, one incensed me in particular as an ordinary citizen. On Monday 12 November the Commander of the nation’s Defence Forces General Constantino Chiwenga flanked by the highest-ranked military chiefs in the country issued a statement regarding recent events happening in the country.

By MIRIAM TOSE MAJOME

Like most Zimbabweans that day, I waited patiently for the national broadcaster’s ZTV 8pm news bulletin to see the piece of headline grabbing news. The ZTV 8pm news is still regarded by the majority of people as the nation’s main source of news on current and topical issues which seize the nation.

Though generally not regarded as the most efficient or independent broadcaster for what it is worth, it still is the national news broadcaster and main news source for the majority of the populace for local, regional and international news.

To my shock, despite the weight and importance of the news, ZTV completely ignored it even though it was clearly the news of the day if not the year at least until that day. I was extremely dismayed but thankfully, unlike the majority of Zimbabweans, I am privileged enough to have options and can turn to other news sources.

So I turned to social media and international and regional stations where indeed that was major news even on international news channels. The majority of Zimbabweans went to bed ignorant of the very important development which affects them that was taking place in their country. The situation was the same with the state-owned Herald newspaper the following morning as they ignored the news like it never happened. Curiously they had posted live tweets earlier about the statement but had deleted them later quite inexplicably.

Clearly somebody somewhere had made the decision to deny people access to information. Annoyed at being denied access to information, I took out the legal statutes to see if this was permissible in terms of the law.

The law

The right to access of information is canvassed in sections 61 and 62 of the Constitution. So somebody somewhere intentionally violated our rights and freedoms by denying us that piece of news. It is unacceptable that somebody or a group of people or an institution can simply decide for its own self-serving agendas to decree what the people of this country should read, hear and watch on the media.

This is taking people too much for granted because no institution is bestowed with any such right especially regarding matters and issues which affect their lives.

There is a certain thinking that emerged among politicians that they own us the people of this country so they can decide what we hear, watch, think and talk about. Section 61(1) states that every person has the right to freedom of expression which includes (a) freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information.

Further, section 62(1) states that every institution or agency of government at every level Zimbabwean citizen or permanent resident, including juristic persons and the Zimbabwean media has the right of access to any information held by the State or by any institution or agency of government at every level in so far as the information is required in the interests of public accountability.

Even more importantly, section 62(3) states that every person including the Zimbabwean media has the right of access to any information held by any person including the State in so far as the information is required for the exercise or protection of a right.

Violation of the Constitution

The decision to exclude that particular piece of news from national broadcasters and State-owned media houses was in serious violation of the Constitution and so should be condemned with the utmost rage. It exposed the strangulation and gagging of editorial staff and broadcasters by the State or politicians.

It showed how much they are denied the independence and impartiality that is demanded in section 61. All State-owned media are compelled to be free to determine independently the editorial content of their broadcasts and other communications. They are also obliged to be impartial and afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions.

Of course, this rarely happens and what happened on Monday was just an unequivocal show of force. The State is clearly skilled in controlling State media and knows well the psychological effect and benefits of dumbing a nation down by exposing the populace to only one preferred point of view to the exclusion of all others. It is said, the human brain thrives on familiarity, patterns and predictability.

However the State does not own the people and should not think for them and decide for them the information they should or should not get.

It is condescending and is totalitarianism at its worst. Zimbabweans are intelligent people who have the ability to process information they receive and make their own minds up about issues which affect them.

Restrictions

The only time access to information is restricted is stated in section 61(d) and section 62(4). Information can be restricted if it includes incitement to violence, advocates hate speech, if it is intended to cause malicious injury to a person’s reputation or if there is a malicious or unwarranted breach of a person’s right to privacy.

Section 62(4) provides for the creation of legislation that may restrict access to information if it is in the interests of defence, public security or for professional confidentiality to the extent that the restriction to the information is fair, reasonable, necessary and justifiable in a democratic society based on openness, justice, human dignity, equality and freedom.

What the nation witnessed on Monday was a travesty of justice by the State and national broadcaster and taking people for granted. We hope we will see less of that brutish conduct as the nation charts unchartered territory. In the past weeks, we discussed cyber affairs and the impact of social media and cyber laws and it is instructive that in urban areas many things are taken for granted.

Urban people actually fight battles with an overload of information. In the rural areas, however, where the generality of the population lives information is a very scarce resource. Every little bit of information filtering in from outside is valued and treasured. Rural folk do not have the privilege of alternative news sources and so they rely on State media to tell them what is happening in the country.

Obviously, in pursuit of parochial agendas the intention of politicians is to keep as many people as possible in the dark regarding national affairs but this is so abominable and cruel. As unreal as it may sound, it was a shock to some people to suddenly see soldiers in the ZTV news studio making a pronouncement.

There was certainly a poor old widow who sacrificed the few bond notes she had left to come all the way to Harare from Zhombe, Mudzi or elsewhere to inquire about her husband’s suspended pension payments only to find an army tank blocking the road. She didn’t understand why because nobody told her and the rumours she had heard were obviously not true because when she asked her grandson to wind up the little stereo Radio Zimbabwe had said nothing at all like that so it could not have been true and so she got on the bus.

For other people it’s crucial events like public examinations, end of year events, holidays, travelling etc so State media platforms owe the people of this country the duty of disseminating every piece of vital information that affects their lives and businesses.