The following is an address by Swedish Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Sten Rylander, at the National Journalistic and Media Awards last Friday.
I WOULD like to use this opportunity to look at the progress of the inclusive government and the role of the media.
I will share my views from an international perspective and as a friend of the Zimbabwean people. I believe an international perspective is crucial because free media and freedom of expression know no borders.
Media should and can never be constrained by narrow national perceptions or sovereignty.
Sweden has an admired tradition of press freedom, which dates back as far as 1766 when the Freedom of the Press Act was passed. Sweden’s current work with media is ultimately founded on the rights of the individual: the right to freedom of expression, the right to knowledge, the right to transform knowledge into action and the right to freedom from poverty.
This year the Swedish government has boosted its commitment to democracy and freedom of expression even further through a decision on increased spending and other initiatives.
This special action is one important way to counter oppression, which is an obstacle to poverty alleviation. As Sweden we are therefore interested in how the inclusive government deals with the media and how the media covers the progress of the inclusive government as this has an impact on the lives of ordinary people.
As from July 1 Sweden took over the presidency of the European Union.
The Swedish EU presidency has an overall goal which is to lead the EU in a transparent and efficient manner, in line with Swedish policy and values, and in the interest of the EU as a whole.
As part of the agenda during our presidency, we aim to build democracy and to further coordinate and strengthen the EU in its external and developmental policy. As the Swedish presidency in Zimbabwe we seek to follow and monitor the implementation of the Global Political Agreement (GPA).
The opening up of the media environment is one of the key issues that we will be observing. As part of the agenda we also endeavour to achieve a successful dialogue (under Article 8 of the EU-ACP Cotonou Agreement) with the Zimbabwean government aimed at normalised relations.
In this regard, an open and vibrant media will be important in order to highlight and communicate the progress of the inclusive government as the country moves towards re-engagement.
Press freedom is not an alien concept. One of the best and most comprehensive sets of media guidelines was produced in Namibia in the early 1990s.
I am happy to inform you that I was Ambassador in Namibia when the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) was established and I contributed very actively to its formative stages. Its birth came after the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting Independent and Pluralistic Media in 1991.
The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights has wedged in with a Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Information.
Despite the adoption of these commendable declarations, monopolies continue to exist in some countries, not least in Zimbabwe, which still has a single national broadcaster contrary to the objectives espoused in its broadcasting laws.
In addition, there have been documented cases of freedom of the press violations in most countries in the region and unfortunately Zimbabwe has not been an exception.
Over the last years the state repression of the media has intensified through the use of legislation like Aippa, Posa and the Broadcasting Services Act.
These laws have seen the crackdown on the media resulting in forced closure of private newspapers and radio stations, the arrest and intimidation of journalists and the restructuring of the state media into a deplorable and highly politicised monopoly.
The international community and indeed Zimbabweans are closely monitoring the media environment expecting an end to the repression as an indicator of the success of the inclusive government.
For us to have a clear understanding of the progress of the inclusive government and the role of the media, it is important to focus on the GPA, which provides the framework for the inclusive government.
Article 19 of the GPA, signed by the three political parties, recognises the importance of the right to freedom of expression and the role of the media in a multi-party democracy. The implementation of the GPA in general and the adherence to the article dealing with media in particular is a litmus test of the sincerity of the inclusive government to usher in a new era of unity, freedom and work.
The GPA notes that while the provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act permit the issuance of licences, to date no licences other than to the public broadcaster have been issued.
It is very important for the government to urgently open up the airwaves to allow for the operation of “as many media houses as possible” to directly quote from the GPA. A first step would be to open the airwaves for community radio stations.
As Sweden we join so many others in believing that the absence of community-based radios hinders development and slows down poverty reduction efforts. Community radio stations could be playing a crucial role in terms of informing the ordinary people, especially in rural and marginal areas, on the progress of the inclusive government and other key issues like national healing and the constitution-making process.
We call upon the government to open the airwaves and grant operating licences to community radio stations and other broadcasters.
The parties to the GPA agreed that the government shall ensure the immediate processing by the appropriate authorities of all applications for re-registration and registration in terms of both the Broadcasting Services Act, as well as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa).
We urge the government to do this and to go further to allow parliament – in consultation with all media players – to discuss these acts to determine if they help or hinder media freedom. If they hinder it, we urge the parties to amend or repeal parts of these laws, which are not in line with the spirit of the inclusive government, and realign them with key regional media declarations. It is important for government to come up with legislation that will open up the media landscape and help facilitate the implementation of the GPA.
The GPA notes that it is important for the public and private media to refrain from using abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred – or that unfairly undermines political parties and other organisations.
It is therefore worrying to note the hate speech and negative and biased reporting that is still coming from the state media on a regular basis. The inclusive government should ensure that appropriate measures are taken to achieve this objective as articulated in the GPA.
In order to open up the media environment as anticipated by the agreement, the parties agreed that steps should be taken to ensure that the public media provides balanced and fair coverage of all legitimate political activities. We call upon the government to ensure that the public media abides by what was agreed in the GPA.
The media is very important in the current dispensation; its role is to accurately inform on the various processes underway, for instance the constitution-making process, the re-branding exercise and the crafting of the national vision.
It is regrettable and unfortunate that media coverage and access in Zimbabwe is below 50%. There are many areas in Zimbabwe, especially rural areas, where there is no radio or television coverage and which newspapers do not reach. It is very important for the media to be accessed by ordinary Zimbabweans.
The government has to provide adequate funding that will ensure universal media access to all Zimbabweans.
As we honour distinguished journalists who have excelled in various categories we should also call upon the government to support initiatives by various media organisations in training journalists.
Such training is relevant to the current dispensation, since the quality of journalism will determine the role that the media can play in reporting and giving feedback on the work of the inclusive government.
The training will also be important in order to build a new brand of highly trained journalists, whose work can contribute towards rebuilding the country.
Most of the media reforms we are calling for are not alien or imposed by the West but are derived from the wisdom of the GPA and are in line with the key regional declarations on media freedom. It is therefore imperative that the government abides by what it agreed upon in the GPA.