By Farai Matiashe
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe and Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) have urged government to make positive changes in the three proposed new media Bills to align with regional and continental instruments and principles that the country is a signatory to.
Government has engaged stakeholders to introduce media reforms decades after imposing draconian media laws. There are fears the efforts were only to change names of the statutes and not the contents.
The Ministry of Information and an inter-ministerial taskforce are in the process of drafting the Information Bill, Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill and the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill.
After attending a legislative drafting workshop convened by government in Nyanga recently, the two media groupings accused President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of technically denying citizens information with amendments in the Information Bill.
“One issue concerning the draft Freedom of Information Bill, related to the format that requests for information should take. Misa and MAZ argued that it is best if information requests are made orally or in writing in any of Zimbabwe’s official languages. The drafters, however, argued that verbal requests for information would pose challenges for information officers.
“While the world over, it has become best practice for government to declassify information as a means of promoting accountability, the Ministry of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services was reluctant to factor in such a proposal,” reads the statement.
The media stakeholders had proposed that the Bill should define the declassification procedure, with stakeholders proposing that information be declassified after 20 years in line with specified categories.
The two media groups said they hoped that the issue of self-regulation would be discussed in full and included in the draft Bill. They said, to date, the issue remained unresolved with no parameters on how the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) would work with another body to co-regulate the media.
There was also debate around the issue of the ZMC being granted powers to involve the police in investigations and to enjoy the same powers as commissions of inquiry in terms of the constitutionally questionable Commissions of Inquiries Act.
Misa and MAZ said government was still holding on the draconian contents in the Broadcasting Services Act which restrict foreign ownership and that could cripple the broadcasting industry in Zimbabwe, if not remedied.
“The first issue of concern is on the amount of foreign funding and ownership a local radio or television station can receive. According to the current Bill, foreign ownership in a local broadcasting service provider cannot exceed 20%. This is problematic because broadcasting by its nature is a capital intensive industry. Insisting that local funding should make up at least 80% of the capital will mean that several broadcasting services will have difficulties raising the required operational capital to establish such services,” reads the statement.
“Secondly, the Bill prohibits donations to broadcasting services. This prohibition refers to the donation of actual equipment and financial donations that are at most times used to get community radio stations up and running. For example, this means that a church-based organisation cannot donate radio broadcasting equipment to a local community for the purpose of setting up a religious or faith-based community radio station within that local community. These restrictions on funding are an indirect way of curbing would-be radio and television entrepreneurs from establishing their broadcasting services.”
However, Misa and MAZ said they were hopeful that the government would make the positive changes into the Bills since drafting was still ongoing.