Zimbabwe's power-sharing deal contains little cause for hope for improved media freedom, argues jocoza's correspondent in Harare.  While the ruling party's track record in dealing with the media is well known, the opposition MDC has allowed President Robert Mugabe to retain control of the Ministry of Communications – and has itself displayed hostility to journalists.

Our correspondent writes:

The signing of Zimbabwe’s power-sharing deal on 15 September led to a belief that Zimbabwe was about to turn the corner.  Indeed the prospects of a new political, social economic and media life improved as the leaders appended their signatures under the watchful eyes of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders in Harare on that historic day.

As a journalist coming from a background of four stressful and miserable yeas caused by the closure of my newspaper, and like any other Zimbabwean, I was keen to know what the deal held for me.
Among other key issues, the agreement seeks to respect and uphold press freedom and transform the media industry in general. Given a background of closures and arbitrary arrests of journalists by the state, this raised hopes. However, as the weeks go by, the agreement seems increasingly to be on its last legs. Disagreements and mistrust in allocating ministries have driven the deal towards total collapse.

The failure by the SADC mediator, Thabo Mbeki, and the SADC troika means that it will be a long way before Zimbabwe can start on the road to recovery. For me, the inordinate delay in implementing the deal means that there will be no quick recovery for the media.
What are disturbing are the actions of both political formations, Zanu PF and the main faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
Zanu PF, whose destruction of the media is well documented, has retained the Ministry of Information.  The MDC did not challenge this key ministry being retained by Zanu-PF.
Under the stewardship of Zanu PF, four newspapers including the largest circulating daily – The Daily News – have been shut down. Nearly a thousand journalists have been rendered jobless as a result of closures of newspapers and one television station.
The MDC itself has borne the brunt of media control as it was denied space in both the state papers and electronic media. Allowing Zanu-PF to retain the Ministry of Information means Mugabe and his party keeps a key advantage over opposition parties.

While it can be argued that Tsvangirai as prime minister will run this ministry including others, Mugabe will appoint the Information Minister from his party. As Tsvangirai’s boss, he will either veto or approve of his decisions.

Despite the MDC’s majority in Parliament, Mugabe is able to use his majority in the Senate to exercise power.

It is ironic that the MDC is demanding control of Home Affairs, which includes police services, without looking at how it can help influence reform in the media.

Yes, Mugabe has used the police to crush public dissent but control of the media has been as effective as police in crushing opposition. Mugabe has shown total disregard for press freedom. Zanu PF has driven the only broadcaster – The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation – towards collapse.

Several journalists from the state media have been fired either for “supporting the MDC” or trying to be professional. By retaining the Ministry of Information, Mugabe will still pack these institutions with his supporters. The veteran leader will surely resist reforms he deem “suspicious”.

He has continued to abuse journalists despite changes to the law.  In December 2007, both Zanu PF and the MDC amended contentious laws – the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Public Order Security Act (POSA) in the spirit of dialogue.

This was done without the input of the civic society and media houses.

The amendments included the non-criminalization of practising journalism without accreditation and disbandment of the Media and Information Commission (MIC) which was on paper, replaced by the Zimbabwe Media Council. But nothing has changed on the ground.
On 27 October hundreds of protesters were assaulted by armed police as they marched towards the SADC troika summit in Harare to show their anger at the slow pace in implementing the now shaky power sharing agreement.
Freelance journalists, who, under the amended AIPPA are no longer compelled to seek accreditation, were barred from covering the SADC summit.  Secret service operatives who were manning the hotel entrance demanded accreditation from the MIC.
It was baffling as it was nonsensical to ask for accreditation from a disbanded organization (MIC).

But the MDC itself has also displayed disturbing behaviour.

At the beginning of October, journalists were barred from covering a press conference at Tsvangirai’s residence. His security personnel demanded accreditation cards from the  MIC!

This was despite the fact that the MDC itself in official gatherings and statements demanded the repeal of the restrictive media laws and the scrapping of accreditation cards.  MDC security details said they were acting on orders from “above”.

Given the historical background surrounding the closure of papers and a radio station in Zimbabwe and arrests of journalists, many had hoped for a good sign from both Zanu PF and the MDC.

As for Zanu PF, very few hope that the party can change its spots.

This is why we had placed much hope on the MDC when it entered into this deal.  Both parties are consumed with the power game whose ending is far from known.
While I agree that media reform is necessary for recovery, I am not too optimistic that there would be significant changes in the media under this deal.

In short: it is a long way to press freedom and recovery.

* This column was written for journalism.co.za by our correspondent in Harare.