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  • Examining the challenges of media regulation during elections in Zimbabwe
    Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe
    December 14, 2012

    The holding 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 Interception of 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.

    While there 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.

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