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the challenges of media regulation during elections in Zimbabwe
Media Council of Zimbabwe
December 14, 2012
of free and fair elections is always linked with the necessary existence
of a free media in any political and human rights environment that
claims to be democratic. In Zimbabwe's case, we have been
the only country in SADC to have held at least five national elections
in a period spanning twelve years. In all of these national elections
which have occurred on average every two years, the media has not
been free and neither has there been an express protection of the
right of all citizens to express themselves.
It is only after
the formation of the inclusive government in 2009 that we have come
to see the incremental expansion of media platforms both as an act
of government policy as well as by dint of technological advancement
(via new communications technologies). Unfortunately the physical
expansion of the media has not been underpinned by a simultaneous
expansion in the enjoyment of freedom of expression and media freedom
by media practitioners and members of the public. This is mainly
because the criminalization of freedom of expression as well as
the media still persists as evidenced by the continued arrest or
threats of arrests of media professionals for merely doing their
work and the regular criminal charges laid against citizens for
undermining the 'authority of the state or President'
on the basis of what they will have said on social media platforms
or on commuter omnibuses.
And this is
an important departure point in this presentation. Over the last
twelve years the occurrence of elections has not meant the greater
enjoyment of freedom of the media nor its progenitor, freedom of
expression. In fact elections have by and large led to an increase
in the harassment, intimidation and arrests of journalists. It has
also been reported that some Zimbabwean journalist have been abducted
and found dead later, particularly in the year 2008. The reasons
for this state of affairs are many, but fundamentally are a direct
offshoot of the continued existence of laws that seek to criminalize
the media. These laws, Access
to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), Public
Order and Security Act (POSA), the Criminal
Law Codification and Reform Act, the Official
Secrets Act and the Defense Act, the Broadcasting
Services Act. The Postal and Telecommunications Act and the
Communications Act have served as a wide range of tools that
the state or powerful citizens can use against the media before,
during and after elections.
There is however
a general tendency for there to be some sort of 'exceptionalism'
around electoral periods for the media where the Zimbabwe Media
Commission (ZMC) allows the media to somewhat fall under the purview
of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). This does not however
mean a suspension of laws such as AIPPA or POSA. It merely means
a further bureaucratization of freedom of expression and media freedom
during electoral periods. This is mainly through a separate code
of conduct for media practitioners during elections that is established
by ZEC in terms of the Electoral
Amendment Act of 2012.
While the intentions
of the latter Act of Parliament are commendable, they remain mired
in the unfortunate 'privileging' of the media's
right to carry out its work without undue hindrance and within a
decriminalized context. In most democratic countries, the rules
around fair coverage of all political parties are mainly applied
to the public broadcaster which has a general obligation to cover
every issue of public interest as neutrally as possible not only
during elections but as a part of its ongoing mandate. In Zimbabwe's
case we have had ZEC failing to influence the editorial coverage
of news by our current state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting
Corporation (ZBC) in electoral periods.
In light of
the foregoing the primary challenge of the regulation of the media
during electoral periods in Zimbabwe are unfortunately many. These
challenges can be listed as follows:
a) The continued
criminalization of freedom of expression and media freedom
b) The culture
of impunity against journalists by the state and powerful personalities
in Zimbabwean society together with the attendant false and undemocratic
assumption that media freedom is a privilege and not a right.
c) The unnecessary
bureaucratization of the regulation of the media with multiple regulatory
bodies inclusive of the ZMC, ZEC, Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe
(BAZ), the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and others in the work
of the media, particularly during electoral periods. And this bureaucracy
is not to expand media freedom but to curtail it.
d) The undemocratic
tendency of seeking media expansion during elections without an
understanding that media freedom is not only related to such periods
only but must be part of the continually mainstream democratic culture
of the country.
As we approach
the elections that are constitutionally scheduled for 2013, with
or without the Global
Political Agreement (GPA) we must seek to strengthen a democratic
framework of regulating the media not only during elections but
as a force of democratic habit. The fact that the Zimbabwean media
has established the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe and a Media
Code of Conduct is an important stepping stone to ensuring that
there is no undue hindrance to the media's public interest
work during elections.
is always more work for the media during elections, it is important
that we understand that electoral periods are not an end in themselves
but are an end-product of the life cycles of governments. It is
what occurs in between elections that informs whether or not citizens
enjoy full access to information and access to divergent views before,
during and long after electoral periods.
the VMCZ fact
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