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SADC initiatives and media law reforms
MISA-Zimbabwe
July 25, 2007

MISA- Zimbabwe acknowledges the Southern African Development Community (SADC) efforts to end the Zimbabwean crisis and welcomes the talks between the opposition MDC and ruling Zanu PF being mediated by President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.

According to media reports the main issues on the agenda include the need for a new Constitution, electoral law reforms and the amendment of repressive laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and Broadcasting Services Act (BSA).

With the 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections only a few months away, the question of equitable and equal access to the public media as envisioned under the SADC Principles and Guidelines on the Conduct of Democratic Election will inevitably be of intense interest and debate. It is in that vein that MISA -Zimbabwe is of the strong view that the mediation process should involve all stakeholders. This will ensure that the process is all-embracing and representative of the concerns of the generality of the citizens of Zimbabwe as reflected by the diverse civic society groups in the country.

MISA-Zimbabwe submits that those involved in the talks should consult widely in order to capture the views of the general populace whose voices should be represented through civil society organisations in order to input into the mediation process as well as render legitimacy to the initiatives through an all inclusive consultative process.

According to press reports MISA-Zimbabwe is made to understand that laws such as AIPPA which has contributed to the curtailment of free voices, opinions and views through the closure of four privately owned newspapers has been sidelined as a peripheral issue which will only be addressed through discussions on the need for constitutional reforms and the need for an explicit provision that guarantees Press Freedom. Scores of journalists, media workers, publishers and editors have been harassed, intimidated or arrested under AIPPA since its enactment in 2002 effectively contributing to the shrinkage of Zimbabwe's democratic space.

AIPPA should, therefore feature prominently during the talks between the opposition MDC and ruling Zanu PF as its well documented history and trail of destruction and onslaught on the civil liberties of Zimbabweans speaks for itself.

AIPPA's very existence as complemented by other restrictive media laws such as BSA, POSA, Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, Constitutional Amendment (No 17) Act and the Interception of Communications Bill recently passed by Parliament and the Senate, compromise the right to media freedom and freedom of expression which is critical to democratic practice more so towards the creation of an environment conducive to free and fair elections.

MISA-Zimbabwe insists that AIPPA should therefore be tabled as a separate item on the agenda given the role it has played in limiting access to information and restricting the free flow of alternative views, ideas and opinions on issues of good governance and accountability through the closure of independent platforms such as the Daily News, Daily News on Sunday, The Tribune and Weekly Times. This law violates regional declarations and principles such as the Windhoek Declaration and SADC Principles and Guidelines on the Conduct of Democratic Elections - declarations and principles which are designed to foster democracy, accountability and good governance in southern Africa in order for the region to realise its full socio-economic and political potential as a family united and bonded by the same democratic values and principles.

MISA-Zimbabwe, therefore submits that AIPPA has contributed towards the reversal of the shared regional visions and missions as embodied under the Windhoek Declaration, SADC Principles and Guidelines on the Conduct of Democratic Elections, the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and the Banjul Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa thereby warranting the serious and meticulous attention of delegates to the SADC mediated talks as a single and separate agenda item.

The quest for constitutional and electoral reforms will undoubtedly also feature prominently during the ongoing South African mediated talks between the opposition MDC and ruling Zanu PF as central and critical to the holding of free and fair elections in 2008 and other subsequent elections thereafter.

Intrinsically linked to the creation of an environment conducive for free and fair elections is the need to transform state broadcasters into truly independent public broadcasters. The long term credibility and compliance with the SADC Principles and Guidelines rests on pressing member states to institute comprehensive media law reforms that will expunge restrictive media laws such as the Broadcasting Services Act and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The SADC Guidelines espouse the full participation of citizens in the electoral process, press freedom and equal access by all political parties to state media, freedom of association and political tolerance and independence of the judiciary among its other 10 fundamental tenets for the holding of free and fair elections.

It is in that regard that the transformation of the ZBC into a truly independent public broadcaster among other contributory factors will go a long way in securing a free and fair environment ahead of the 2008 elections and thus render the SADC guidelines meaningful and achievable.

The very existence of repressive and restrictive laws such as AIPPA and POSA and the BSA as it relates to the state's control of the ZBC are designed to regulate free speech thereby muzzling the citizens right to freely formulate and air their beliefs and political attitudes through open discussions and platforms more so through the ZBC which is funded by the taxpayer.

Public service broadcasting therefore plays a critical role in meeting the citizens' desire and hunger for the broadest possible information, advice, debate and analysis to enable them to make informed decisions and choices on issues that affect their daily lives.

The prevailing regulatory environment as dictated by the BSA and the ZBC's governance, ownership and management structure chokes its editorial independence allowing the Ministry of Information and Publicity free reign over the appointment of its Board of Directors, Chief Executive Officer and editorial decisions.

ZBC has remained biased in favour of the government and the ruling Zanu PF as it has centred more on serving as the public relations arm of the ruling elite and their acolytes in contravention of the SADC Principles and Guidelines, the African Charter on Broadcasting and the Banjul Declarations on the Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa.

The editorial stance of the ZBC as a public media should therefore change as it has failed to meet its public service mandate and conform to the SADC guidelines. Free and fair elections include freedom of the press and access to national radio and television which remains utopian under the existing constitutional and legislative environment which has seen the government tightening its grip on the ZBC

MISA-Zimbabwe submits that for the ZBC to be respected as a truly independent broadcaster, there is need to repeal the BSA and ensure that the new legislation surrenders the appointment of its board of governors to a transparent public nomination and selection process.

MISA-Zimbabwe demands that the SADC should therefore insist and impress upon the ruling elite during their forthcoming summit which will be held in Zambia in August that the transformation of state broadcasters into truly independent entities that reflect the plurality and diverse views of society is a pre-condition to the holding of free and fair elections.

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