Zimbabwe will never claw its way back into international respectability as long as the Media and Information Commission continues to plague the country's journalists, writes Stanley Gama in the Zimbabwe Independent. The recent court ruling declaring the body to be defunct is to be welcomed, and should be implemented as soon as possible.

Stanley Gama writes in the Zimbabwe Independent:

LAST week’s landmark High Court ruling by Justice Bharat Patel in which he confirmed the illegality of the defunct Media and Information Commission (MIC) is a victory for democracy in general as one of the major pillars of media repression was spectacularly brought down.

MIC had become notorious for using its draconian laws to close down newspapers, which reduced hundreds of journalists and other media workers to abject poverty while journalists were arrested on trumped up charges.

To some of us MIC was a monster created to promote media repression while at the same time using the few remaining newspapers and one broadcaster for crude propaganda purposes by government.
The MIC had become a danger to society.

I was at the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe in 2003 working for the Daily News on Sunday when the MIC instigated its closure and that of the Daily News.

I remember vividly the day the Daily News on Sunday was forced to close down.

It was a Saturday when suddenly heavily armed policemen invaded our newsroom and took up positions and ordered us to stop working and vacate our premises.

It was so confusing that some journalists, especially females, almost collapsed due to fear. We were taken to Harare Central Police station where the officers from the Law and Order Section failed to prefer any charges against us.

Instead they confessed that they did not know why we had been arrested and said they were waiting for instructions from the “top” and after more than five hours at the police station we were released without charge.

Like hundreds of others, I was immediately rendered unemployed and suffered the anguish of being ejected out of the house I was renting while at the same time I could not even pay fees for my son who was attending pre-school.

Suddenly some of us were struggling to survive. Some journalists even became airtime vendors, others sold tomatoes while others simply went around begging.

For some of us it was hell on earth until years later when we started to be creative — doing cross-border business and at times writing stories for different organisations. It was tough surviving but we had to soldier on.

Many journalists decided to go abroad but some of us decided to stay and fight the repression from within. It is also important to note that while Tafataona Mahoso, a historian and the chairman of the defunct MIC, was moving around in the luxury of a brand new Mitsubishi Pajero, the journalists and media workers who had been affected by his actions were living from hand to mouth.

This is why after the High Court ruling, some journalists were saying we have equalised the scores and now it’s time to go for total victory and free the media from despots like those at the dead MIC.

Despite being illegal, MIC continued to register journalists, charging as much as US$30 000 for foreign news agencies while insisting that journalists produce MIC accreditation cards which were also deemed illegal by the judge.

Our victory in court was not only for journalists like Valentine Maponga, Jealousy Mawarire, Stanley Kwenda and myself who were the applicants in the case; it was a victory for all journalists including those who get discs from senior civil servants at the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity and publish them as their stories.

They know they are being abused, they are aware that they are being used and they understand that they are propaganda tools but they have no option otherwise they will be sent home if they refuse to publish the propaganda.

This victory is not about Stanley Gama and journalists from the independent press but also for colleagues at Zimpapers and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation who have for years been not able to think for themselves.

Someone at the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity has been thinking for them and writing stories for them and I can assure them that freedom is slowly coming to them.

Some of us were hoping to cover the Comesa summit in Victoria Falls and travelled there armed with the landmark High Court order, but security agents there turned us away.

The order was clear — the Minister of Media, Information and Publicity, Webster Shamu, and his permanent secretary, George Charamba, amongst others, were barred from involving themselves in issues relating to our attendance at the Comesa Summit.

The two were also barred from interfering in any way with our practice of journalism. But they seemed to defy the court order using security agents.

I don’t blame the security — they were only doing their job after getting instructions from the Ministry of Information that they were never to allow the journalists who had taken the case to court to be accredited.

Justice Patel had made it clear in his judgement that we were not supposed to be accredited using the illegal MIC cards but when we got to the venue they were still required.

The judge had made it clear that we were only supposed to be registered with the Comesa secretariat. But the security details had instructions not to allow us in despite the High Court order.

I have a feeling that there are some people close to President Robert Mugabe who are deliberately breaking the law in a bid to tarnish the image of the president. When such lawlessness occurs, the world does not know there is a civil servant behind it — they just blame President Mugabe.

It is cruel for the civil servants who day and night break the law and the president has to go out of his way to defend them.

Surely, President Mugabe did not instruct security agents to chase us away from the Comesa Summit but some overzealous officials who are busy fighting the president from within.

In terms of the rule of law, I am now convinced that President Mugabe is being sabotaged by a cabal of top government and Zanu PF officials for reasons some of us are yet to understand.

Zimbabwe will never get any form of assistance from the international community as long as undemocratic tendencies are allowed to continue.

The minister and his permanent secretary were served with the High Court order and their lawyers were in attendance and therefore cannot pretend to be unaware of the existence of this order.

Even the Attorney-General’s office supported us in court and said the MIC was illegal and that the minister and his subordinates must not interfere in any with the work of journalists.

Refreshingly, there are some in government like Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai who are for reforms as evidenced by his court affidavit and his public statements that the MIC ceased to exist last year and journalists were free to cover anything in the absence of the Zimbabwe Media Commission which is still to be set up — four months into the inclusive government.

But Tsvangirai’s calls for reforms will not yield anything as long as we have serial law breaking senior government officials.

We call upon the inclusive government to quickly set up the Zimbabwe Media Commission so that the vacuum that exists today is filled otherwise it will be manipulated by anti-democracy activists in government who are masquerading as civil servants.

Defiance of court orders with impunity has blighted our country for many years now, together with abuse of power by the surrogates pretending to represent Mugabe.

Notwithstanding this, it is the same law breakers who cry out loud that other countries should lift travel sanctions and allow their kind to walk freely in democracies abroad.

We wish to make it clear to the anti-reform cabal in government and any others who take similar action, that the days of lawlessness are coming to an end, and there is no going back on the push for return of the rule of law, respect for the courts and protection of the fundamental rights of the people of Zimbabwe.

That is why we are fighting for media freedom so that real journalists will be able to expose those who are tarnishing the image of the country.

We hope one day we will be able to move from this primitive way of operating where we are probably the only country in the region without private radio and televisions stations.

* Gama is a freelance journalist. This article first appeared in the Zimbabwe Independent on 11 June 2009.