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Zimbabwe's media after the election
International Bar Association (IBA)
Extracted from IBA Weekly Column on Zimbabwe – No 072
May 05, 2005

The parliamentary elections are over. The ruling Zanu-PF has gotten what it wanted – a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The Minister of Information and Publicity, Jonathan Moyo, once nicknamed ‘Goebbels’, has been replaced by a new man who is making conciliatory overtures towards the independent press which Moyo tried to grind into pulp. Does all this signal the start of a more peaceful era in Zimbabwe’s media landscape?

Unlikely, though there is room for limited hope.

The new information minister, Tichaona Jokonya, called a meeting last month for editors, both from the state and private media, with the aim of improving the relationship between the government and the media and of discussing ways to amend the more contentious parts of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). The move was a departure from his predecessor’s autocratic style, characterised by a bitter trench warfare between the state and the independent media. Jokonya, on the other hand, has expressed an interest in improving the relationship between the two sides – the meeting was the first step.

The minister outlined his vision and some of what he said did sound good. For instance, he said the state media would no longer receive preferential treatment over the private media and announced regular briefings by his ministry to ensure government officials were more accessible to the media. According to one report, he told media owners: ‘I just want to say you should really feel free we have no axe to grind. We have come here to say we are colleagues. The state does not need to protect itself.’

But, as Vincent Kahiya, editor of the weekly The Independent, who attended the meeting, told a reporter: ‘What remains to be seen is whether the system will allow him to carry out his agenda. It can very well be diplomatic posturing.’

One thing is clear, AIPPA will not be repealed. ‘The minister has already indicated that there will be no substantive changes to AIPPA. He has said that he believes in the law and that it’s a good law,’ says Rashweat Mukundu, director of the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). While the meeting with the minister indicates that ‘there is room for discussion on the contentious clauses’, a repeal is not on the cards.

‘The new administration might do one or two things [to AIPPA] but it doesn’t have the guts to go to [President Robert] Mugabe and ask to repeal AIPPA. They won’t challenge him on such issues,’ Mukundu says. The government’s and the ruling party’s attitude towards the privately owned press, he argues, is deeply entrenched. ‘The general philosophy of how government and the ruling party handle the media will not change.’

The minister’s conciliatory moves towards the independent media seem to be guided by the government’s need to improve Zimbabwe’s tarnished image, particularly in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Even if South Africa’s President Mbeki and SADC members have declared things to be normal in Zimbabwe, ‘I’m sure they know things are not normal here,’ says Mukundu. ‘One of the issues that is constantly mentioned is freedom of expression – for the media, labour, NGOs and business. The government sees an opportunity now that it has politically entrenched themselves. But it needs aid and a good image for investment and tourism. The minister is engaging with the media to change the image of Zimbabwe.’

The media must therefore continue to manoeuver under AIPPA and other repressive laws. But it should take advantage of what Kahiya called the ‘window of uncertainty’ to engage the new information minister. Mukundu believes this might be the opportunity to push for a revision of the section of AIPPA that establishes the Media and Information Commission (MIC). MISA is concerned with AIPPA’s requirement that journalists apply annually for accreditation and media houses every two years for a license to operate. It neither makes good business sense nor does it encourage investment to grant media houses a license that is only valid for two years, he says. Media houses, like other private enterprises, should be registered ‘for life’ and then be left to fend for themselves.

Regarding the accreditation of journalists, if this requirement is to remain on the statute books, then MISA would prefer to see the accreditation be done by an independent and transparent body. At the moment the government-appointed MIC handles accreditation applications which require journalists to submit a list of personal information. Journalists often engage in self-censorship for fear of offending the government and risking a revocation of their licenses, or worse.

Mukundu says that, for a number of years, journalists in Zimbabwe have been working on establishing a voluntary Media Council which would function like other professional bodies. Jonathan Moyo stopped state-employed journalists from participating in such a council. But according to Mukundu, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Information and Publicity – which now is no longer a part of the president’s office and has become a fully fledged ministry – seems open to the idea of such a council.

Mukundu believes that the new administration may choose to leave laws like AIPPA and the Public Order and Security Act on the shelf ‘but will dust them off from time to time to arrest a few journalists’. But even if the election victory has lulled the ruling party into a feeling of comfortable complacency that stops it from using the laws aggressively against the independent press, the laws remain on the statute books and its attitude of suspicion towards the media is unlikely to change. This status quo alone runs counter to the declaration adopted in Dakar during a conference on ‘Media and Good Governance’ to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May.

The declaration stated that ‘independent and pluralistic media are essential for ensuring transparency, accountability and participation as fundamental elements of good governance and human rights-based development’. It also emphasised the need for national authorities to create an environment that is favourable to free and independent media. At the close of the conference, the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, said: ‘Every time the right to inform is undermined, human rights as a whole are being undermined.’

* This column is provided by the International Bar Association - An organisation that represents the Law Societies and Bar Associations around the world, and works to uphold the rule of law. For further information, visit the website

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