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to free the media in Zimbabwe
May 03, 2007
After Robert Mugabe goes, Zimbabweans
will have to face the fact that they have not enjoyed freedom of
expression and a free media to the extent they should have as a
modern and independent nation.
A colonial and Rhodesian legacy of
a media system that underpins repression was reinforced, after independence,
instead of being dismantled. Zimbabwe remains one of very few countries
in the world where the government still enjoys a monopoly of broadcasting
and controls the largest print media company.
Parallels with North Korea might seem
over the top, but it is undeniable that Zimbabweans have been denied
a diverse media system that supports democratic citizenship.
A media system that is designed and
operated to control rather than allow free flow of information and
open discussion has directly contributed to forestalling democratic
change and reform. In particular, the state media have not allowed
the political opposition and civil society a voice.
During election periods, the state
media have denied the electorate the ability to evaluate the different
political programmes and policies of competing candidates by refusing
access to opposition parties. A lack of media diversity and editorially
independent mass media in Zimbabwe has led directly to lack of political
Most countries in Africa have media
systems in which there is some private and community-owned media
that are editorially independent from government control.
It is not surprising that in these
countries there have been some political reforms and some degree
of political pluralism, because only through media pluralism is
it possible to have circulating contesting ideas and discourses
that feed democratic habits.
In contrast, in its 27 years of independence
Zimbabwe has only enjoyed at most three years of the existence of
mass-circulation, privately owned, daily newspapers -- the short
lived Daily Gazette and the Daily News.
The reality of a large, state-controlled
media monopoly contrasts with the population's high literacy rates
and an appetite for reading that is one of the highest on the continent.
Media outside the country
As a result of the closed
media space, Zimbabwe is now a country with a vibrant system of
online and broadcast surrogate media based outside the country and
complemented by a few weekly independent titles inside.
To some extent, this is a result of
the more than three million Zimbabweans in the diaspora who wish
to protest against oppression and debate change. Zimbabweans have
become masters of alternative communication and media strategies
as surrogates for mainstream media.
After Mugabe goes, Zimbabweans need
to make a clean break with a media system characterised by information
control and unidirectional messages increasingly out of kilter with
realities on the ground.
It will be necessary to embark without
delay on a radical programme of media reform, informed not only
by an ideal to create media free of editorial control by the government,
private owners and advertisers, but also pluralistic and diverse
media that are accountable to the public and serve their information
and communication needs.
South Africa should provide a useful
example, and not those countries where political transitions have
been hijacked by leaders who, upon replacing dictators, transmute
into dictators themselves using the same instruments, institutions
and laws that they were supposedly fighting.
But Zimbabwe must go further than South
Africa if it is to ensure that powerful parties never again hold
the nation to ransom through their control of the media. It must
avoid creating huge media monopolies that are owned or linked to
powerful political and economic interests that, in the long term,
create oligarchies with strangle participatory democracy.
A failure to dismantle quickly a media
system based on severe restrictions on freedom of expression will
be one of the major factors -- if not the single factor -- that
leads to an aborted political transition from authoritarian rule
to political processes in which Zimbabweans have a chance to debate
and participate in creating a new society.
Zimbabweans must learn
from the recent history of aborted transitions that even those who
are currently fighting for democracy will be the first to be tempted
and seek to control the media when they begin to face the difficult
challenges of actually governing.
Specifically, actions need to be taken
to repeal laws or particular sections of laws that infringe media
freedom and freedom of expression. A new constitution must unequivocally
guarantee freedom of expression and of the media to ensure that
they are beyond the control of all powerful parties, in particular
the state and any government of the day.
to Information and Protection of Privacy Act does not go far
enough in allowing the right and access to information. It is heavily
weighted towards official secrecy and does not promote a culture
of accountability -- something that has been scarce as a value in
public life. Only editorially free media can nurture accountability.
A new Zimbabwe needs modern laws of
disclosure and access to information in the public interest that
promote transparency. Access to information and disclosure will
also be a necessary as a weapon against endemic corruption.
Equally, the Public
Order and Security Act and the Official Secrets Act must be
repealed because they are in fundamental conflict with the right
to freedom of expression and of the media to access and disseminate
information in the public interest.
Criminal defamation that can only serve
to shield public and powerful figures from a probing media for fear
of being sued should also be abolished in favour of legislation
that enables access to information.
Any provisions of security and defence
legislation that restrict the functions of the media -- including
sections of the Parliamentary Privileges and Immunities Act that
give Parliament the power to sit as a court and imprison journalists
for revealing information obtained from parliamentary committees
-- should be repelled because they impinge on freedom of expression.
The Media and Information
Commission should be dissolved and its powers to license media houses
and journalists immediately abolished. All newspapers that have
been closed should be allowed to resume publication. All foreign
media that have been expelled should be allowed to return.
In the place of the Media and Information
Commission, Zimbabwe needs an independent, publicly funded agency
that promotes media diversity -- in particular, one that can nurture
grassroots participatory media that are controlled by ordinary people.
Such an agency should regulate media ownership and promote the production
of high-quality content by Zimbabweans using innovative production
Zimbabwe will need a new media policy
and regulatory framework anchored in respecting and promoting freedom
of expression as an inalienable human right. New broadcasting laws
that remove the control of broadcasting from government control
and state ownership are needed.
As in South Africa and other democratic
nations of the world, an independent communications regulator with
enough resources to enable the emergence of a diverse and pluralistic
broadcasting system should be created. It is the independent regulator,
not the government, that must allocate licences and monitor compliance
with licence conditions.
At the centre of the broadcasting system
should be an independent public broadcaster competing for audiences
with privately owned stations on programmes and complementing community
stations. Critical to the role of the broadcasting system should
be its ability to inform Zimbabweans about their rights so that
they can exercise them.
Policy makers must also take advantage
of new digital technologies and digitisation to ensure that limited
frequency spectrum is not a constraint to creating a diverse and
dense broadcasting network that enables Zimbabweans to have choices.
Apart from being caught in the time warp of a state-controlled broadcasting
monopoly, Zimbabwe's broadcasting system is technologically outdated.
The state-owned print
media and news agency needs to be transformed into a genuine public
medium by radically changing its governance, management and funding,
and reorienting it to serve the public interest. It will simply
not be possible to create political pluralism in Zimbabwe without
an independent public media system that underpins citizenship rights.
To effect this transformation, the
boards of Zimpapers, New Ziana and the ZBC should be reconstituted.
Independent persons with knowledge, qualifications and experience
in media and communication studies, journalism, broadcasting, media
law, accounting and management, culture and the arts, media technology
and representatives of civil society organizations should be appointed.
The boards should hire all senior managers and editorial staff on
merit. The boards should report and be accountable to a multiparty
committee of Parliament, not the government.
Zimbabwe will need to develop media
professionals who have high ethical values and see journalism as
serving the public interest.
A history of censorship has inculcated
partisanship and practices that compromise journalism. To nurture
positive values, journalists should form a voluntary, self-regulating
media council that will draw up professional codes of conduct, monitor
ethical violations, use peer pressure and other sanctions that do
not impede freedom of expression and editorial and programming independence.
All media should publicise the professional code of conduct, as
well as the processes and procedures that members of the public
should follow if they have complaints.
Zimbabweans will also have to develop,
appreciate and defend a culture of freedom of expression and realise
that defending and promoting freedom of expression is an integral
part of a democratic culture.
Citizens should avoid the temptation
to remain silent or to acquiescence to limitations on freedom of
expression because it might suit their prejudices or beliefs. Freedom
of expression and of the media belongs to all.
The silencing of one is the silencing
*Tawana Kupe is dean of humanities
at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
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