Held in virtual secrecy, the recent congress of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists marked a takeover of the union by pro-Zanu-PF elements, writes Guthrie Munyuki in thie commentary for journalism.co.za. It is time for the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe to be revived.

Guthrie Munyuki writes this commentary for journalism.co.za:

The eagerly-awaited Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) congress has come and gone but sadly left the union strongly divided.

It became a sham because out of the more than 450 members, only 42 were invited and allowed to a vote at secret location, some 560 km from the capital Harare. The congress was held at How Mine in the remote parts of Matabeleland, in the west of Zimbabwe.

The ZUJ congress had attracted a lot of interest, including from journalists in the diaspora who had expected to see an elected executive with strong credentials to lead the union during this transitional period.

But most members of ZUJ from the independent press were not invited to the congress; while  the venue of the congress was kept a secret from the majority of the membership including some executive members who had wished to seek re-election.

Former president Matthew Takaona defended the way the congress was organized by arguing it was done to keep away politicians from sponsoring their own candidates. Effectively some interested candidates were frozen out.

Of course, this was a flimsy pretext which exposed the hand of Zanu PF politicians in this congress.

Takaona might have meant the congress venue was kept a secret to “stop MDC T” politicians sponsored journalists because by judging the outcome of the elections, it is Zanu PF who won!

Zimpapers and Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH) who have remained under the control of Zanu PF got the influential posts.

News Editor of The Sunday News, Dumisani Sibanda was elected new President while ZBH’s Mercy Pote and Herald’s Michael Padera were elected first and second vice presidents respectively.

Foster Dongozi was retained as secretary general. A former employee of the state controlled ZBC was unopposed for the position of treasurer.

Standard’s Masvingo reporter, Godfrey Mutimba was elected onto the committee. Another Standard reporter, Jennifer Dube, was elected the new chairperson of the Gender Mainstreaming Committee and freelance journalist Valentine Maponga was elected into the same committee.

This is the first time in 10 years that the ZUJ executive has deliberately ignored journalists from the independent press.

It is a clear sign that ZUJ, deliberately or not, has delivered the union into the hands of the state. There is just no way Sibanda, Pote and Padera can question or condemn government actions.

Takaona was fired from his position at Zimpapers for defending journalists from The Daily News when he was still employed by The Sunday Mail. Surely he cannot expect us to believe that the new ZUJ leadership will deliver in face of bullying by Zanu-PF politicians.

Given what has transpired at ZUJ, it is only sensible for independent journalists to revive the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe (IJAZ).

IJAZ was formed in 1999 for the sole purpose of protecting the rights of independent journalists.
This was necessitated by the torture of the Standard’s founding editor, the late Mark Govha Chavunduka and veteran journalist from the same paper, Ray Choto.

IJAZ had a strong leadership but later heeded calls by key stakeholders to join hands with ZUJ and fight as one unit the repressive laws wrought by the Zanu PF government.

IJAZ, at the time, had spiritedly fought the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) through the courts until its case landed in the Supreme Court where it challenged the constitutionality of this evil law.

IJAZ, after losing its case at the Supreme Court almost at the same time The Daily News lost its case in the same court; it fielded the similar challenge at the African Commission on Peoples and Human Rights (ACPHR) and won.

The then Zanu PF government which had presided over the closure of four newspapers and collapse of journalism in this country, was forced to eat a humble pie.

Rafts of bad sections of AIPPA were noted and the government had no option but to amend and/or to repeal some sections.

The IJAZ was the body that had taken mattes into its own hands after ZUJ led by Takaona failed to take this issue further than a High Court challenge of 2002.

The unity government which is beset with numerous problems surely does not inspire confidence  to the extent that we can break the balance that had been traditionally ZUJ’s bedrock – sharing of key posts between the state media and the independent press.

Now that this has crashed into a ruin, it is time to revive IJAZ and include well-meaning freelance journalists into this body to work outside ZUJ. Recently we revived the Zimbabwe Journalists for Human Rights (ZJHR) to complement other key partners in the areas of justice promotion.

It is only proper for us journalists in the independent media to organise ourselves and prepare for the assault on media freedom.
We have seen how hate language, speech and vitriol have been promoted by the state-controlled media despite the formation of a unity government.

If lawyers, doctors, engineers and many other professions can organise, run and execute their functions effortlessly, why should we fail as independent journalists to run our own affairs?
The whole world knows that Zimbabwe’s independent journalists have borne the brunt of repressive state machinery

Hundreds are without jobs and for the last six years, their lives have been in the hands of a Zanu PF government which had the sole of prerogative of “making us breathe or suffocate”.
It is time to make a push for the revival of IJAZ.

Takaona’s brazen statement that ZUJ members other than a selected few were kept from the congress because of a desire to keep candidates sponsored by politicians away from the congress was the last straw!

* Guthrie Munyuki is a Zimbabwean journalist and former  Arts Editor at The Daily News On Sunday and Daily News.