Media reform under the unity government. A critical assessment June 2010

University of Cape Town shield/logoBy Dr Wallace Chuma – Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Film & Media Studies, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

It’s been nearly 18 months since the formation of the unity government in Zimbabwe, ushering in a layered and complex transition whose prospects for greater democratisation remain a subject of profound debate. One sector which best manifests the contradictory character of this transition is the media, where the promise of reform has been followed through by a series of half measures which, while ostensibly pointing toward increased freedom, betray the grip of the past on the present and the (near) future.

Few would doubt that the ‘inclusive’ government pulled the country back from the brink. The Zimbabwe crisis is well documented. But going forward, the momentum for substantial reforms, at least with regard to media policy and practice, seems to have been lost.

During the interparty negotiations that led to the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA), the political document that gave birth to the unity government, media reform was a key and contested issue. The MDC formations pushed for, among other things, repeal of existing legislation which had been used to muzzle the press, as well as for liberalisation of the airwaves. Zanu PF wanted the so-called pirate radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe from abroad, to be closed down. The GPA document promises to address both concerns, but does not give substantial detail, commitments and timelines for media and communications sector reform.

A number of developments have so far taken place under the unity government. Within the first few months of its existence, the government announced a scrapping of import duty on newspapers. The old government, facing crisis of legitimacy at home and abroad, had imposed punitive duty on imported newspapers, which it viewed as hostile. This was part of broader ‘shock and awe’ communication policy. With the lifting of duty, it became easier to distribute newspapers printed outside the country but widely read in Zimbabwe, such as The Zimbabwean, Mail & Guardian and the Sunday Times, all printed in South Africa. During the same period, the government invited international media organisations such as CNN and BBC back into the country, and they obliged. Both Zanu PF and MDC politicians routinely pronounced on the impending restructuring of the media with a view to increasing diversity and pluralism. The opening up of airwaves and licensing of new newspapers was the key topic. During the “All stakeholder media conference” in Kariba in May 2009-perhaps the first ‘public’ convention on media policy in as many years-the new government committed itself to reforming the media sector.

The establishment of the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) is probably the most important development that has taken place under the unity government. The commission licenses newspapers and regulates media practice. Significantly, the Commission recently licensed three independent daily newspapers, one of which is already on the streets. Against the background of the closure of newspapers by its predecessor, the Media and Information Commission (MIC) from 2003 upwards, the recent licensing of new players was a key milestone.

In addition to specific policy interventions taken by the new government on the media, it is important to note that the general easing of political tensions in the country following the signing of the GPA in September 2008 created an enabling environment for journalism practice. For the first time since 2000, it became less risky for especially independent media journalists and freelancers to traverse the country on their professional pursuits. Violations continued-and are well documented-but they were substantially reduced.

Laudable as these developments may be, they are woefully inadequate. Take the case of the ZMC. The fact that this body is restricted to licensing newspapers and journalists makes it largely irrelevant. Newspapers worldwide are a dying medium. In Zimbabwe, they are read by less than a tenth of the population. The recent licensing of three dailies is a positive development (although there should have been no need to require newspapers to be licensed in the first place). But the question is whether they will survive the ravages of a fragile economy emerging from profound crisis. In my view, Harare (for this is where the real economy in the country is unevenly concentrated) can hardly sustain more than two dailies. In other words, the market could end up acting as the Tafataona Mahoso-led MIC, closing down newspapers!  If the government was sincere on the project of opening up the media-belated as this may be-they could have given the ZMC the powers to license radio and television stations, rather than giving them to the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), led by the same Mahoso whose ultraconservative views on media diversity are legendary. Both the BAZ and the statute that gave birth to it, the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), should not be part of any progressive media policy regime.

The real test of the government’s commitment to media reform is therefore in the area of broadcasting, rather than newspapers (Since 1980, Zimbabwe has always had private/independent newspapers anyway!). In addition to broadcasting, new media is also a key area. The decision by President Mugabe last year to transfer the custodianship of the Posts and Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) from the ICTs Ministry headed by an MDC appointee, to the Transport Ministry, headed by a Zanu PF minister is indicative of the fierce contestation within the coalition government around the character of reform in the key sectors of broadcasting, telephony and new media. Zanu PF men head key media policy nerve centres in government, and any comprehensive media reform can only happen if it gets the blessing of that party. The list includes the custodianship of Potraz, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), the Interception to Communication Act (ICA), and the Public Order and Security Act (Posa, jointly with the MDC).

In the absence of a coherent plan of action on reforms, what has happened so far are a series of half measures designed to placate restive sections of civil society and the international community. There has not been a genuine public consultation process on the media that Zimbabweans want. Parliamentary hearings on the communications sector last year were inconsequential because they were not representative of the diversity of media ‘stakeholders’ in the country. Just as the unity government does not sing from the same hymn sheet on Chiadzwa and sanctions, among many others, they are clearly not at one on the nature of media reforms that Zimbabwe so desperately and needs.

A few examples of the absence of coherence and goodwill in government around media reforms would suffice. First, Zimpapers publications, especially the Herald and Sunday Mail, have virtually been allowed to continue with the belligerent line of reporting that they adopted during the crisis. Their journalism continues to function as a site of struggle between imagined bona fide nationalists (Zanu PF) and imagined traitors (MDCs), the reality of the unity government notwithstanding. Even the restructuring of the state media, including both Zimpapers and ZBC, has not been agreed upon by the players in government. Second, the recent warning given to Econet Wireless by George Charamba a.k.a Nathaniel Manheru regarding the hosting of MDC (T) messages was indicative of the fractures in the government and the resultant incoherence in communication policy. The use of mobile telephone service providers to distribute political messages is a problematic policy issue everywhere, but what happens when some parties have untrammelled access to the state broadcaster and others are shut out? In addition to warning Econet of the possibility of being denied a license renewal in the near future (who controls the regulator is a no brainer!), Charamba made the point that the next election will be fought in the airwaves. He was spot on. Does this render the celebrations over the licensing of newspapers somewhat hollow? I think so.

In its recent report on progress on the media sector reform in Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch characterised the developments so far as a sleight of hand. There could be no better way to put it. And yet, there is still hope that the spaces opened up by the formation of the unity government could be embraced by civil society to demand substantial media reforms. As politicians in government lose appetite for change, civil society groups could step into the breach and challenge policymakers, especially parliamentarians on reform. They must insist on the need for genuinely independent regulation for broadcasting and telephony, for explicitly constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of the media and expression, for journalism self regulation, for an independent public service media and for freedom of information legislation. In the absence of these far reaching changes to the media, it would not be possible to have free and fair elections in future.

Mon, July 12 2010 » Global Political Agreement, Zimbabwe Review

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