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A blow to media freedom
Reyhana Masters-Smith in The Mail & Guardian (SA)
February 13, 2004

Reyhana Masters-Smith is chairperson of Misa-Zimbabwe. This article was written in her personal capacity

It angers me when I listen to or read the belligerent and extremely blinkered statements made by South African government officials when questioned about Zimbabwe. It is unforgivable for a well-informed politician such as Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to deal with extremely complex issues within the political landscape of Zimbabwe by dismissing them with a ludicrous statement such as "the British kith and kin factor is frustrating the political crisis in Zimbabwe". It is also tiresome when politicians on both sides of the border constantly accuse the privately owned media of being "puppets" of Western imperialist interests. These accusations are without any basis whatsoever, other than the fact that the stories carried by these media organisations are unpalatable to those in power. Statements like these are so contemptuous of us Zimbabweans, and it is a tired political gimmick that seeks to distract people from the very real issues on the ground.

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) is all about control. It is about who gets a licence to publish and who doesn’t. It is about who gets accreditation to practise as a journalist and who doesn’t. It is about facing criminal charges if you practise as a journalist without being accredited. The judgement of the Supreme Court last week, declaring sections of Aippa constitutional, is undoubtedly a death blow to media freedom and the right of the public to access information through a medium of their choice. The heavily criticised section dealing with the publication of false information, and in terms of which many journalists have suffered unlawful arrest and detention, was nullified last year. It was judged to be unconstitutional by the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court in the matter of Lloyd Mudiwa and Geoffrey Nyarota versus the state. It has since been amended and the declaration by the Supreme Court in its latest judgement is purely academic.

From the onset Aippa has been nefariously controversial. Despite repeated calls to involve media players in the formulation of this critical piece of legislation, the drafting of the Bill remained shrouded in secrecy. There are strong suspicions that it was not even drafted in the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs as is normal practice. Aippa’s architects in the Information Ministry has convinced the world that this legislation is intended to uphold professional standards in the media and, as cited in the Act, "to provide members of the public with a right of access to records and information held by public bodies". It does not in any way seek to improve the standards of reporting. All this Act seeks to do is to deal with media deemed wayward by the government. But most importantly it curtails access to information, particularly that held by public bodies. President Thabo Mbeki, presumably acting on information he received, has publicly stated that Aippa was being amended to create a more conducive environment. Far from it.

The amendments actually intensify the repressive nature of this piece of legislation by tightening loopholes. Since its enactment on March 15 2002, 76 media practitioners have been charged under Aippa, although to date not one single matter has resulted in a conviction. The media practitioners harassed, intimidated and arrested under Aippa are exclusively from the private and independent media. All the events over the past three years point to one fact. Zanu PF is preparing itself for elections scheduled for next year and it is determined that there will be no alternative voices reporting on the abuse of power by the state and the use of violence by state institutions.

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