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  • New Constitution-making process - Index of articles

  • The media environment and the Constitutional Referendum
    The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe
    March 16, 2013

    As Zimbabweans go to decide the fate of Copac’s draft constitution on March 16 2013, the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe assesses how far the media environment has changed since the last time they voted in a national election.

    According to the Global Political Agreement (GPA) governing the inclusive government, media reforms were one of the authorities’ priorities on its agenda of work. But have these reforms been achieved?

    The answer is no.

    The same repressive legislative framework that governed the media then still exists today, and radio stations and newspapers can be shut down at the whim of the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) if it so pleases using these laws.

    These laws include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA); the Public Order and Security Act (POSA); the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA); the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and the Interception of Communications Act. Despite these laws, it is ironic that the archaic colonial law of criminal defamation is often used as the favoured tool by those in influential positions to silence their critics.

    What is wrong with these laws?

    Firstly, criminal defamation has long been considered a tool of authoritarian societies to shield those in power from legitimate scrutiny. And even the African Union, through its Commission on Human and People’s Rights, is campaigning to have them removed from the statute books of African nations. The other laws mentioned restrict freedom of expression and access to information far beyond the levels permitted under regional and international law. Collectively, they also conspire to:

    • Criminalise journalism;
    • Restrict entry of independent players into the broadcasting sector;
    • Facilitate government’s ability to exercise excessive control over media houses;
    • Allow the authorities to exercise direct control over public and state media and blur the distinction between party and state affairs;

    Restrict freedom of expression and the free exchange of views;

    • Restrict access to public information; and
    • Impose excessive and unconstitutional controls over the practice of journalism.

    During its four-year tenure, the inclusive government has made absolutely no attempt to reform these laws, preferring instead, to apply the fig leaf of allowing more newspapers and two more local radio stations – the first in the country’s history – in an effort to disguise its failure to reform the legal media environment envisaged under the GPA aimed at creating a climate that would promote and protect free expression and a free, independent and diverse media community.

    Although Zimbabwe has never embarked on a crucial national process like the March 16th constitutional referendum with so many media outlets on the market since independence, this does not mean substantial reform.

    Most of the country’s new media products only reach urban audiences, leaving the vast majority of Zimbabweans still in the “dark ages” of access to information - except for those in the marginalised communities who have smart phones and are interested in news about Zimbabwe. Or those who dare to risk listening to the so-called pirate radio stations, such as Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa.

    And the recent confiscation of radio sets by the police – and their arbitrary and unconstitutional declaration that listening to pirate radio stations is “illegal” – is a clear indication that freedom of information and expression remains a “limited privilege” for those in urban communities with undeniable access to a variety of sources of information.

    This means that most citizens living in Zimbabwe’s “marginalised” communities still remain at the mercy of the relentless propaganda emanating from Zimbabwe’s pervasive state and public media (most especially the national broadcaster, ZBC) whose editorial independence has been systematically emasculated over the years to exclusively promote and protect the image of ZANU PF, just one of the three governing coalition parties. Citizens should know that the future of all the new privately owned news outlets, as well as the well-established ones too, cannot be guaranteed as a matter of right, and remain hostage to the current repressive legislative environment.

    Nor will their rights to operate be safeguarded under the new constitution. For although freedom of expression and the media are explicitly “guaranteed” under the COPAC draft, this right is immediately undermined by the proviso that they are subject to any law “regulating” these rights.

    In other words, Zimbabweans’ rights to free expression and to receive and impart information without interference will remain at the mercy of AIPPA, POSA, the Criminal Code and all those other laws that suffocate these rights. In the meantime, the Minister of Media and Information, Webster Shamu, has provided clear evidence of the government’s intolerance of the right to free expression by repeatedly threatening “errant media houses” with closure if they continued “abusing” their right to Press freedom by denouncing the country and its leadership.

    In his most recent attack in September last year, he exposed his utter disdain for the principle of the right to free expression when he declared: “Government has warned them twice and this is the last warning. There is no need for attacking the President or the leadership… This is an abuse of the freedom that has been given to them…”

    Since October last year at least four journalists have been arrested and numerous other criminal charges are ongoing against private media institutions and their staff. Many ordinary citizens have also been prosecuted under repressive insult laws unfairly protecting the image of the presidency and the uniformed forces.

    Extra-legal attacks have also been used to violate media freedom and Zimbabweans’ right to free expression.

    These have usually manifested themselves in threats, harassment, illegal detentions, beatings and torture of media workers, newspaper vendors, and other members of the public by quasi-militia gangs and state security agents. Clearly, a climate of intolerance and restriction still pervades Zimbabwe’s media environment.

    No doubt today’s constitutional referendum will be a relatively peaceful experience because there is no political dispute over its adoption. But most of Zimbabwe’s electorate are being asked to vote without having seen and understood the provisions of the new draft law.

    Despite the efforts of COPAC and Zimbabwe’s media outlets to explain these important issues, there has simply not been enough time to provide this information to the public and allow citizens to debate and understand what they are being asked to endorse by the country’s political leadership.

    By demanding that Zimbabweans vote now on such an important matter that affects all our lives, it is clear, they too, have treated the electorate with the utmost disdain by crudely violating our right to information and denying the nation a chance to participate in this process from an informed perspective. It will not be surprising if the majority withhold their verdict on the draft.

    The coming political elections is sure to be a completely different ball-game and is likely to expose the real intolerance of the authorities to those critical of the status quo.

    And the media is certain to be on the front line.

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