Zimbabwe's government plans to relax draconian media restrictions

Regulation & Policy

The UK's Independent media reported that the nation's highest court threw out a section of Zimbabwe's stringent media laws, saying it violated journalists' constitutional right to freedom of expression. Supreme Court Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku overturned the clause outlawing the publication of "falsehoods", which the law said abused journalistic privilege. The clause held journalists responsible for incorrect information that was published. State attorneys did not oppose the appeal by the independent Daily News of charges against its former editor, Geoff Nyarota, and reporter Lloyd Mudiwa that they falsely published a story alleging an opposition supporter was beheaded during political violence.

The journalists faced up to two years in jail under Zimbabwe's media laws, known as the Access to Information Act. The Act has been criticised by independent lawyers and human rights groups as a tool to stifle criticism of President Robert Mugabe's government. Gugulethu Moyo, the newspaper's lawyer, said yesterday's ruling was "a small victory". She said: "The entire legislation should be condemned." An adjacent clause, making falsification or fabrication of information an offence by journalists, remained. This ruling was the first on a constitutional challenge to the media laws as part of a 100-day action plan. At least 16 journalists have been arrested and charged with violating the media laws since they were passed before presidential elections last year. No state media journalists have been charged. Three journalists have been expelled from the country over the past two years and only a handful of foreign reporters has been granted visas to enter Zimbabwe.

The Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) applauded the news. There would likely be a new media commission which would consider licensing new television and radio stations. Zimbabwe is desperate for foreign aid and wants to see an end to sanctions imposed by Europe and the USA. An estimated two-thirds of Zimbabweans are in need of food aid. The cholera epidemic has sickened more than 80,000 people and killed more than 4,000 since August 2008.