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Political impediments that have inhibited the realization of media reforms in Zimbabwe
Takura Zhangazha
December 15, 2011

The topic that I have been asked to make a presentation on, while it infers a direct analysis of the policies of the inclusive government in Zimbabwe, it remains a matter that must be of utmost concern to every single Zimbabwean. I make this immediate assertion in order to emphasize that the key issues around media freedom and media reform in Zimbabwe are all derived from the Article 20 of Zimbabwe-s Constitution which gives all of us that right to receive and impart information. Indeed there are what have been generally described as undemocratic limitations to this section (public health, national security etc).

But the key point in my observation and in relation to this important topic that I have been asked to present, is that this right to receive and impart information has existed since our national independence in 1980 and therefore it is a right that precedes as well as surpasses the Global Political Agreement of 2008.

It is from this fundamental premise that I wish to examine the topic in question. I am sure that the conveners of this conference have a particular urgency in seeking to understand the political impediments that have inhibited the realization of democratic media reform in Zimbabwe.

This urgency would be one that has emerged in the context of the processes around the licensing of free to air national radio broadcasting licences by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ). The controversy has been about the legality of BAZ as well as various perceptions around the companies that have been awarded the licenses. As recently as Tuesday 13 December 2011, the matter has taken a further political twist with MDC-T members of parliament moving a motion that these licenses be rescinded altogether. So as it is, there is limited reason to assume that there will be collective resolution within the inclusive government of the emerging contestations around broadcast media reform as was seen with the print media.

But broadly spoken for and within our current political context, the issue of democratic media reform in Zimbabwe is one that is generally misunderstood by our political leaders in the inclusive government. Initial evidence of this misunderstanding was demonstrated during the negotiations that led to the formation of the inclusive government. During these negotiations, there were amendments that were made to the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in what some negotiators called 'necessary compromises. They however did not define the extent of the necessity of these compromises in direct relation to the enjoyment of the right of the people of Zimbabwe to receive and impart information. Instead the issue focused on getting concessions that largely included the participation of parliament and eventually, in the aftermath of the appointment of the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, the same particular office into the appointment processes of various persons to become commissioners or board members of BAZ and of the ZMC.

Against better advice from civil society players, the political parties of that time and of present day chose the path of looking at media reform from a highly politicized perspective as opposed to one that takes into account the right of the people to receive and impart information. In this too, the political players made the grievous political mistake of assuming media freedom to be a privilege and therefore not a right. And the end product of this approach has been the maintenance of laws that criminalize freedom of expression via AIPPA, POSA and read with both these acts the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

Indeed some might argue that within the context of the inclusive government , it is one political party more than others that has persistently undermined media reform. I would not necessarily disagree with that point because since our national independence it is indeed Zanu PF that has yielded the executive authority that comes with government all of the time. But in the aftermath of the GPA and formation of the inclusive government itself, it is evident that a key political impediment to media reform has been found in two particular components of the policy approaches of government actors and political leaders. These are:

a) An incremental approach to media reform

b) A politically expedient lack of knowledge and understanding (either deliberate or non-deliberate) of the media, media freedom and freedom of expression by policy makers.

The first point is self explanatory in the sense that it is apparent that any form of media reform has been slow and highly politicized. This is true in relation to changes in legal and policy frameworks. A tacit example of this is the decision to not only retain the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) and AIPPA, BSA, albeit with slightly different terms of reference, but with greater roles and influence (e.g. the ZMC is now a constitutional commission).

Further to this, the inclusive government has fought over the people that sit on media related constitutional and statutory boards more than they have sought a holistic and fundamental democratization of our media policies and media environment . This is a particularly telling point because it re-affirms the 'politics of benevolence- that now informs the approach of government to the issue of freedom of expression.

The second point I refer to is that of a lack of knowledge or understanding of the media by government on media issues. This lack of knowledge is not because the knowledge does not exist or that policy makers do not have access to it. Instead it is based more on matters to do with political expediency and a desire to maintain some sort of hegemonic presence via control of the media by all political parties in the inclusive government.

This was initially demonstrated through the amendments to media laws and the maintenance of the criminalization of freedom of expression curing the negotiations that led to the GPA and the formation of the inclusive government. Even in the aftermath of that there has been a tendency by government in its collective responsibility element to continue with processes that are inimical to democratic media reform such as arrests of journalists, media freedom activists as well as limited progress in the diversification and editorial independence of the media.

A final political impediment to the key national question of media reform is also to found in those, like me, who are activists in the struggle for media freedom. We have tended to be too subservient to the incremental and sometimes partisan interests of those in power. And this has included over-compromising on what are democratic media freedom principles in the hope that we will gain the ear of government or those that have vested interests in the same, be they international donors, business interests or partisan political considerations. We have occasionally lost sight of the goal and in the process have tended to have to react to events after their occurrence.

It would however be necessary to conclude by providing a way forward framework. There must be a consistent understanding on our part that media freedom is not a privilege but a right as enshrined in Section 20 of Zimbabwe-s constitution, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is this fundamental point that must inform how we approach any strategic way forward.

We must not over compromise on this principle, and this is one of the main reasons why organizations such as the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) continue to exist. At the VMCZ we have been asked many questions as to why we are not asking to be members of the ZMC and our reply is that we do not believe in being complicit in the criminalization of the journalistic profession.

And also because while it may have seemed convenient in the euphoria of the early stages of the GPA, we remained focused on the democratic value of freedom of expression. The challenge therefore over the Christmas holidays is to review, reframe, re-strategise re-struggle ourselves back to the platform of democratic value and democratic principle.

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