Zimbabwe: No Movement on Media Reform Despite Government Pledges

Regulation & Policy

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai on Thursday said there have been "significant improvements in media freedom in the country," during an announcement on the outstanding issues of the Global Political Agreement. But improvements, in the form of pledges, are not translating into action. The Prime Minister referred to recommendations made at the recent media conference in Kariba to repeal the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), a critical step that the government is yet to take. Tsvangirai instead lauded the slight amendment of the Act, which saw the scrapping of the repressive Media and Information Commission in January.

AIPPA for years has given the Robert Mugabe led government extensive powers to control the media and suppress free speech by requiring the registration of journalists and prohibiting free expression. The Act created the Media and Information Commission, which has drastically restricted journalists. Under the law, all independent newspapers have been shut down and many journalists have also been arrested and jailed under the Act. AIPPA was amended in January 2005 to allow for the imprisonment for two years of journalists who had not registered with the Commission.

The formation of the unity government in February was heralded as a welcome opportunity to banish such restrictive media laws. But in that time, there has been no action to support the various pledges of media reform made by the government. Instead, media freedom has remained elusive. Last week Zimbabwe Independent Editor, Vincent Kahiya and News Editor, Constantine Chimakure, spent a night in police cells after the newspaper published alleged 'falsehoods' in a story that named Central Intelligence Officers and police officers in the abduction and torture of MDC and other human rights activists last year. They were charged under the Criminal Codification and Reform Act. A few days prior to that, a group of Spanish journalists were severely harassed when they visited a farmer who had been illegally invaded and attacked. They were briefly detained and their government had to intervene. So there is still no possibility of journalists working freely.

There has also been no move to actively allow either the foreign or exiled Zimbabwe media to return and work in the country.. Last week Mugabe's spokesman and Permanent Secretary in the Information Ministry, George Charamba, told state media that journalists from both the BBC and CNN are welcome back to the country. But CNN's Johannesburg Bureau Chief, Kim Norgaard, told SW Radio Africa on Thursday that such an invitation has not been extended to them. Norgaard explained they had contacted the Ministry about the issue and were merely told that at some time in the future they could 'talk' about it. Despite the Prime Minister's insistence that 'significant improvements' have been made, powers that could have reformed the media have been dragged back from the brief control of the MDC.

For example the Interception of Communications Act allows government authorities and agencies to open postal and electronic mail, while internet service providers face jail if they do not give government access to personal emails. Responsibility for this Act had been unilaterally stripped away from Nelson Chamisa's Ministry of Information and Communication Technology by Robert Mugabe last month. At Thursday's announcement, Tsvangirai explained that the Act now remains under the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development - headed by ZANU PF's Nicholas Goche. Meanwhile control of Transmedia, the company that controls signal distribution services for broadcasters and telecommunications, is also back under the control of ZANU PF.

London based political commentator and freelance journalist Crisford Chogugudza explained on Thursday that media freedom in Zimbabwe is far from becoming a reality, arguing that "there is no political will for the reforms to take place." He agreed that pronouncements made by the government are not being backed up by action, and said there is a desperate need for fast change.

"Damage over the last 29 years of media repression has been massive," Chogugudza said. "In order to redress the situation, there needs to be seismic and overwhelming change as soon as possible."

(source : SW Radio Africa)