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Exercise your right to free expression: Interview with Hilton Zvidzayi, Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe
Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa,
July 28, 2009

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When and why was the Voluntary Media Council formed?
The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe was formed in 2007 and became fully operational in January 2009. The Voluntary Media Council was formed because of repressive media laws, namely AIPPA which was quite oppressive. AIPPA was being applied selectively, especially against the private press. The VMCZ was formed as a self regulating body for the media taking after other professions such as law, the medical profession and engineers that have got their own self regulating bodies.

How does the VMCZ settle disputes between the media and the public?
Our complaints mechanism is quite informal in that when someone complains we call them in and we also call in the offending newspaper, the editor or the journalists. We sit down with the media complaints committee comprising three lawyers. We try to reach an understanding where both parties, the complainant and the media house, are satisfied with the outcome. We are concerned with restoring reputation. So if a newspaper, television or radio station is caught on the wrong side of the code of conduct that guides the media profession, they are expected to issue an apology, a retraction, a correction or a right to reply of the complainant.

How successful has the overall process been?
We haven't made much headway in terms of receiving complaints and it's more because of the fear that is gripping Zimbabwe at the moment. People are afraid to come out into the open. You can receive complaints on the phone, but when you request people to put them in writing so that you can take action on them, people tend to pull back fearing victimization. But we have had a number of cases where we have received complaints in written form and we've arbitrated them. Listen

In instances where people are afraid of retribution, can you guarantee anonymity?
If someone complains about something that is general we can guarantee anonymity. But if its an article in a news paper, where their name is mentioned and they are complaining, we can't guarantee anonymity in that their name is already in the papers. During the arbitration process pending judgment we would need to mention the names in reference to the case.

Can you tell us about some of the disputes that you have successfully resolved?
I can give an example of one complaint that we are currently working on: the General Agriculture and Plantation and Workers Association complained about the ZBC in that they were interviewing people concerning an electricity crisis, and one of their respondents said 'takupfeka hembe dzisina kuainwa kunge vanhu vekumapurazi'. So the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers of Zimbabwe complained on behalf of their members in that that report was saying that farm workers put on clothes which are un-ironed, which is not the case. We are also handling a complaint against one of the most prominent journalists in Zimbabwe but the verdict isn't out yet. Listen

In what ways can ordinary people become more involved in media reform?
Through exercising their right to freedom of expression. Saying out what they think about ZBC, saying out what they think about ZTV, what they think about the Standard, the Financial Gazette, the Independent. If they have any complaints against these medias houses then we encourage people to speak out so that the VMCZ can take action against them. Listen

In your view what specific problems do media outlets in Zimbabwe face?
The major hurdle that is being faced at the moment is the legislative environment. If you look at laws such as AIPPA, BSA, the Interception of Communications Act, these are quite restrictive in that they force journalists to self-censor. They can't really say things out as they are. There is fear of harassment, arrest, torture and there is also the risk of newspapers being closed down like what happened to the Daily News, the daily News on Sunday, the Tribune and the Weekly. So media laws are the major hindrance to press freedom at the moment.

How can this issue with the media laws be resolved?
We are calling upon Parliament, and we have had several meetings with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media and Communication Technologies and we have asked them to repeal laws such as AIPPA, and BSA. We are calling for the repeal of AIPPA, not amendments. It has to be repealed in its entirety. There is nothing good that is coming out of it. Instead of promoting access to information its actually working against access to information. So we are encouraging Parliament to repeal AIPPA and at least to amend the Broadcasting Services Act of Zimbabwe so that it can allow more players in. Other repressive laws such as POSA (Public Order and Security Act) and the Criminal Law and Codification Act need to be repealed so that the media is free to operate as a fourth estate.

The amended AIPPA that was appended to the Global Political Agreement - do you feel it was an improvement on the first AIPPA or is it just the same thing?
It was a cover up. There was no improvement whatsoever. If you look at that amendment, what they did was to change the administrative structure of the Media Information Commission (MIC). In terms of access to information, they didn't change anything. In terms of licensing and registration, they didn't change anything. They just changed the way that people are supposed to be registered yet what we are saying is that people are not supposed to be registered to speak out - its your right to freely express yourself. People shouldn't have to be accredited. Listen

Has there been any positive progress towards changing the media environment by the government since the GNU was formed?
I wouldn't want to say there was much progress. There's been headway in that some sections of the Herald like the Nathaniel Manheru column has been removed. But if you look at the way the Herald and ZBC has been working they haven't changed, they are still biased towards a certain ideological position, and they are still biased towards one political party. If you look at the media landscape in general, nothing has changed, its either you are pro this or you are anti this. Nothing much has changed in terms of the media landscape, after the GPA was signed.

A few weeks ago the Minister of Information and Publicity said that CNN and the BBC were never banned in Zimbabwe. But those same media houses are saying that they were banned. How do you feel about that?
Politicians say one thing and the next day they say another thing. They might say they didn't ban CNN and BBC literally, but if you look at the accreditation fees, they are so high, that's as good as banning them. If you look at the accreditation process, its too hectic and its unnecessary, that's also a way of banning them. Also the way they were received and the conduct of the government around those people its as good as banning them. They didn't feel safe operating in Zimbabwe, so its as good as banning them.

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