Media and civic groups have slammed the Zimbabwean Parliament for
“rushing” to amend media and security laws without their input in a
move which they say “amounts to applying lipstick on a frog”, writes
Torby Muturikwa.

The sharp criticism comes in the wake of recent amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Public Order Security Act by legislators made with support from both the ruling Zanu PF and the splintered Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

This followed months of intense negotiations in talks brokered by South Africa and held under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which appointed President Thabo Mbeki to oversee the process.

However, media and pro-democracy groups felt they should have been allowed to give their input before the amendments.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) said the amendments reflect no serious intention on the part of government and MDC to democratise the laws.

Instead, it said the amendments dwell on inconsequential issues, which will not advance basic freedoms such as the right to freedom of expression, media freedom and freedom of assembly and association.

“Under the Bill, the Media and Information Commission (MIC) will be reconstituted as the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC). The ZMC will now consist of nine members appointed by the President from a list of persons nominated by the Parliamentary Committee on Standing Rules and Orders. These members will be chosen on the basis of their knowledge of and experience in the press, print or electronic media or broadcasting.

"Under Aippa as it is at the moment, the MIC is composed of between five and seven members appointed by the Minister of Information and Publicity, at least three of the members being nominated by an association of journalists.

“Misa-Zimbabwe is concerned that the proposed amendment retains statutory regulation which we argue should be abolished in favour of self-regulation. Misa-Zimbabwe notes that despite the changes in the appointment procedure where members of the ZMC will now be appointed by the President from a list of persons nominated by the Parliamentary Committee on Standing Rules and Orders, this process entails that politicians at various levels of the legislature and Executive decide the fate and operations of media organisations and media workers.

“This makes the government a referee and a player at the same time as the same government not only owns the largest media in Zimbabwe but has demonstrated its disdain for alternative media voices since 2000, resulting in four newspapers being shut down.

“The new insertion that registration may still be refused for previously operating without being registered is clearly targeted at the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, publishers of the banned Daily News and Daily News on Sunday. Misa-Zimbabwe expresses outrage that state institutions, resources and legislative bodies are being abused to target individual organizations. We surely ask, can Parliament and the Senate in all seriousness sit down to pass law(s) against individuals, for what gain to the Zimbabwe populace?”

Under the new amendments, the government will abolish the MIC and replace it with a statutory Media Council, which follows just months after the launch of a voluntary Media Council on 8 June 2007 by journalists.

Against this background of a statutory council, Misa noted government’s obsession with controlling the media, which it said, is purely driven by political motives of controlling information.

Misa said: “The concept of self regulation is not to punish as it the intention of the statutory Media Council but to promote ethical reporting through dialogue and mediation. This is aptly captured by the Declaration of Principle on the Right to Freedom of Expression in Africa, which states that, ‘any regulatory body established to hear complaints about media content, including media councils, shall be protected against political, economic or any other undue interference. Its powers shall be administrative in nature and it shall not seek to usurp the role of the courts. Effective self-regulation is the best system for promoting high standards in the media,’ says the Declaration.

The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) said the accreditation of journalists in democratic societies is meant to facilitate their work and afford easy access to information.

ZUJ president Matthew Takaona said the union was "extremely disturbed" by the fact that none of the negotiators saw it fit to consult stakeholders in order to come up with amendments "owned rather than imposed on the media industry".

Iden Wetherell, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (ZINEF), said "Following the amendment of Aippa, the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum calls upon government to demonstrate its sincerity by appointing credible representatives of journalists to the Zimbabwe Media Commission and readmitting to the country without condition Zimbabwean journalists currently living in exile and all foreign correspondents including those expelled from Zimbabwe since 2000, many on spurious grounds."

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said fast-tracking bills showed a “worrying and flagrant lack of respect for processes allowing public input and scrutiny of legislation which affects the Zimbabwean public”.

Said the ZLHR: "They (legislators) missed an opportunity to involve all stakeholders and ensure that substantive, far-reaching and acceptable amendments were made to such insidious legislation which could have had a substantive effect in ensuring a satisfactory electoral environment in the run-up to the 2008 polls and beyond.”

MISA further noted that the BSA includes a new section, which provides for the reconstitution of the present Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) from the seven to nine members appointed by the Minister to 12 members appointed by the President after consultation with the Minister and the Committee on Standing Rules and Orders.

However, it said the fact remains that what the Executive is simply consulting.

“Clause 5 subsection iv (5) clearly states that if any of the nominating bodies fail or refuse to submit names to the President then he can go ahead to appoint any individuals of his/her choice demonstrating that this process is still politically dominated by the Executive. And lacks any clear intentions at sincere consultations and participation.

“The Public representatives that are stated in the amendment Bill are still appointed at the discretion of the Minister and the Executive. The Minister as stated in the Bill has to satisfy him/herself that the nominated individuals represent Church groups as an example. It is not stated how the other nominees i.e. legal practitioner, accountant and two persons chosen on the basis of their broadcasting experience are to be chosen. The nomination and appointment process leaves space for the Minister and President to make appointments of their choice without subjecting these appointees to any public process,” said MISA.

The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition said it was disappointed that contentious sections in the POSA had been retained. It said the law relating to public gathering should have been repealed.

“A democratic society does not need these harsh laws. We would have been happier with the repeal or removal of vicious spots in POSA. We note with disappointment a new section in this law which prohibits gatherings or demonstrations near Parliament, a court or any protected place or area declared as such in terms of the Protected Areas and Places Act unless permission is given by the Speaker, Chief Justice, Judge President or responsible authority of the protected place,” said Crisis In Zimbabwe Coalition co-ordinator Jacob Mafume.