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Amendments to media law passed
Media Institute of Southern Africa - Zimbabwe Chapter (MISA-Zimbabwe)
June 13, 2003

On 11 June 2003, the parliament of Zimbabwe passed into law amendments to a controversial media law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). The government said that the amendments are intended to correct anomalies and errors that became apparent after the law was signed by President Robert Mugabe in March 2002.

The amendments seek among many things to extend the definition of a journalist, mass media service and also the powers of a government appointed Media and Information Commission (MIC). The passage of the Bill hit a snag in May 2003 as the Parliamentary Legal Committee (PLC) said it would pass an adverse report on the Bill. The PLC said that 7 sections of the Bill would be unconstitutional if passed into law. These are sections:

  1. Section 3 – Refusal of disclosure of information relating to personal safety by public officials in the interests of personal safety, mental of physical health.
  2. Section 7 – removal of the right of journalists to nominate three persons to sit on the Media and Information Commission (MIC). This right is conferred in the principal act and the amendments sought to remove it. Leaving the nominations of MIC board members in the hands of the minister only.
  3. Section 10 – Proscribes punitive measures for what the Bill called abuse of freedom of expression intentionally or recklessly falsifying information not only by journalists but any citizen or person on Zimbabwe’s soil.
  4. Sec 11 – Surrendering of shares in a mass media service by persons who do not qualify to own mass media service in terms of the AIPPA principal Act. A date of had been set as to when this surrendering or disposal of shares would happen.
  5. Sec19 - Period under which a foreign journalists can be allowed to operate in Zimbabwe.
  6. Section 20 – Abuse of journalistic privilege and punitive measures attracted thereof.
  7. Section 25 – Appeals to the administrative court on decision passed by the MIC.

The Minister of Justice and Parliamentary Legal Committee told parliament in May that his ministry, the Department of Information and Publicity and the PLC had agreed that the Bill will be withdrawn while the concerns of the PLC area addressed. As such on 11 June parliament set down to debate the new Amendments to the Amendments Bill on AIPPA. Although it was reported that the concerns of the PLC had been addressed, MISA-Zimbabwe notes that the passing of the Bill does not change much in making the law democratic. On the positive side however the Department of Information heeded calls to amend section 80 of the principal act, which mentioned what it called "Abuse of Journalistic privilege" and proscribes criminal punishments for breaking such. This has been changed with the insertion of new words to make it an offence to "intentionally or recklessly" falsify information, to, maliciously or fraudulently fabricate information" or to publish a statement knowing it to be false or without reasonable ground of believing it to be true, or recklessly or with malicious intention. The amendment places the onus on the state to prove the recklessness or intention etc. I other words the outright criminal element in the law has been removed. However a new section "c" of the amendments passed read that:

". Any published statement, which is intentionally, unreasonably, recklessly, maliciously or fraudulently false and either
(1) threatens the interest of defence, public safety, public order, the economic interests of the state, public morality or public heath or,
(2) Is injurious to the reputation, rights and freedoms of other persons: will be published.

MISA-Zimbabwe notes that this inclusion allows a wide berth for the commission and law enforcements agencies to prosecute alleged offenders. There is no definition of what threatens the economic interests of a country and what is public morality. This makes the law vague and subject to abuse. MISA-Zimbabwe still argues that section 80 is not necessary a there is no need to legislate a "journalists" privilege". Penalties under this section have also been altered either to be a fine or imprisonment and not both.

The passed amendments also do away with the Department of Information and Publicity intention to have all the board members of the MIC appointed by the Minister. As such journalists unions still retain the right to nominate three members to the MIC as already said in the principal act.

The passed amendments prescribe that foreign journalists can be accredited to work in Zimbabwe for an maximum period of 30 days depending on the circumstances of each case the MIC might extend the period. MISA-Zimbabwe however still notes that the discretion remains with the MIC either to allow a foreign journalist into Zimbabwe or not as well as to extend his stay, this is subject to abuse.

Despite raising concerns with the parliament specifically the Portfolio Committee on Transport and Communications and the PLC, MISA-Zimbabwe note with disappointment that the definition of a journalist has been extended to mean anyone who "gathers, collects, edits or prepares news stories, materials and information for any service that produces advertisements, the total print or part of the total print of a separate issue or a regular newspaper, magazine or journal, or any publication with a constant name, separate issue of a teletext, the total data or part of the data of any electronically transmitted material, or audio or video recorded programme (whether or not it also disseminates them), whether as an employee of the service or as a freelancer."

MISA-Zimbabwe notes that this definition remains vague and open ended. It is extremely impossible for anyone to establish whether he or she falls within the category. This has implications on matters of accreditation. It is not clear who exactly has to accredit or not. In the same vein the amendments extend the definition of mass media products to include a wide range of publications and information that would not necessarily be defined as mass media in the strict sense of the word. The law now talks of "the total data, or part of the data of any electronically transmitted material. This would include WebPages that are accessible to anyone with the requisite equipment in any part of the world. The question is would these need to be registered as well. This definition would also affect such organisations that distribute information on, for an example, HIV/ AIDS.

The amendments have also extended the powers of the MIC to "on its own initiative or at the request of any person make orders relating to the policing of persons and mass media services falling within the confines of the act". The MIC also has the power to extend the time limit upon which a public official must respond to a request for information or deny access to information. It can be noted that the new insertions give the MIC quasi- judicial powers thus subject to abuse.

It can be noted therefore that although some of the concerns of the PLC were addressed the amendments to AIPPA do not go far in democratising the law. The law still remains lethal in as far as it makes demands for the accreditation of journalists and media houses respectively. Access to information remains totally closed and much power is vested in public officials and the MIC.

Visit the MISA-Zimbabwe fact sheet

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