THE new government is now firmly in place and seems raring to go. As it swings into action and rolls out its political and economic reform agenda which is part of the broad reconstruction effort, we must as a nation put media reform high on our priority list.
No doubt there are a lot of other urgent economic and social issues that need to be addressed, but there is also a compelling case and terrific opportunity for media reform. Â
There is something terribly wrong with a country in this day and age which only has government dominating the newspaper space and airwaves. In an era of growing democratisation and open markets, why should a government be the major player either in the media or any other sector for that matter, except in social welfare areas where it is needed most? Â
We need new private commercial and community radio stations, TV channels and more newspapers and magazines. Only then can the public make informed political choices.
To spearhead media reform, we need an organised and coordinated movement —— and I suggest we have something like the Zimbabwe Movement for Media Reform (ZMMR) —— to fix our badly broken media system. We certainly need a sea change in the media landscape. Decisions taken now could resonate for decades to come.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was spot on when he called for urgent media reforms during his maiden address to parliament on Wednesday. Now we want action.
There is need for a brave reform agenda that will repeal or drastically amend repressive laws such as Aippa, Baz, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, Posa, the Official Secrets Act and many other statutes.
Of course, there have been attempts to amend some of these laws, but frankly speaking those efforts have been piecemeal.
Zimbabwe has no doubt been one of the most vicious outposts of media tyranny. Newspapers have been closed down amid bomb attacks on offices and printing presses, forcing a lot of journalists out of employment and to flee the country. Journalists have been arrested mainly on unjustifiable and false charges by a government which has an armoury of repressive laws.
President Robert Mugabe’s overzealous thought police have been busy in the past 10 years in the media field, picking up, detaining and in some cases beating up journalists but consistently failing to sustain their mostly dubious charges.
The small but vibrant local private media sector has mostly been on the receiving end. The public media has been affected differently.
The international media was banned from operating in the country in a bid to impose an iron curtain around the unfolding political and economic crisis. International correspondents were arrested, roughed up and thrown out, while some were barred from coming in.
The public media —— not government-owned —— have also been subjected to a different form of restriction: direct censorship. The government and its hacks brazenly interfered, forcing a systematic publication of flat-earth news (false stories). Distortion, falsehoods and propaganda became the staple diet of the public media.
For the record, Zimpapers is not government-owned. The group, which was bought from Argus with US$5 million donated by Nigeria, is owned by the public via the Mass Media Trust, a buffer created to prevent any overt or covert interference by intruders in newsrooms.
There is a pervasive public perception that the Herald, Chronicle, Sunday Mail and Sunday News, among other papers in the group, are owned by government. That is simply not true. The fact is those outlets are public property. They don’t belong to the government or Zanu PF for that matter. They are owned by Zimbabweans collectively.
The same applies to ZBC. So any claim that government owns these outlets only helps to reinforce Zanu PF’s illegal control over them.
These experiences must inform and guide the media reform agenda in the context of the broad campaign for change.
The ZMMR platform should bring together organisations like ZUJ, Misa, Ijaz, editors’ forums, women’s media groups, advocates of statutory and voluntary media councils, civil society and other stakeholders to spearhead sustained public media policy and reform debates.
It is very clear media reform will not happen in Zimbabwe without all of us now getting active and applying renewed passion and commitment to building a structure that will genuinely serve the public interest and democracy, not just the political and business elite.
A healthy and vibrant democracy cannot exist without a free media and an informed public.
The objective of ZMMR should be opening up the media environment to allow new investment and technology in the sector. This would include dealing with the laws governing media ownership and registration, content and practice. It should also deal with media ethics and professionalism. Â
In the end, ZMMR should strive to deliver a healthy media sector characterised by diversity, pluralism and professionalism.
For its part, the media must not tolerate dishonest journalists and hacks who bring the profession into disrepute and open up gaps for the agents of repression to intimidate and harass honest and hardworking scribes.
There is an opportunity for change. It is not going to be a simple task given this government’s pathological fear of a free media and residual resistance to change, but it can be done with strong organisation and commitment.
Candid Comment With Dumisani Muleya