The planned Zimbabwean conference on media reform seems headed for disaster, having been packed with Zanu-PFsympathisers and people involved in the Zanu-PF government's crackdown on the media, writes The Standard in an editorial. The agenda has been hicjacked, and the event is unlikely to bring any improvements to the media dispensation.

Zimbabwe's Standard writes in an editorial:

IT is hard to believe the Government of National Unity shares a commitment to media reform seven months after declaring a desire to ungag the media.

The September 15, 2008 Global Political Agreement commits the new administration to freedom of expression and communication, arguing that it recognises the importance of the right to freedom of expression and the role of the media in a multi-party democracy.
The Prime Minister and his party have repeatedly stressed their commitment to a free media environment.
But the more things change, the more they appear to stay the same. Five weeks ago, hard-line elements in government at the last minute cancelled a media reform workshop that was due to be held in Harare from March 27-29.

The real reason for the cancellation was that the government was alarmed that it was not in control of the agenda.

The government’s response to the cancelled March conference came last week.

The venue has been changed, first to Nyanga and then again to Kariba, and the topics are no longer those that had been put forward at last month’s aborted meeting. Above all there was no consultation with media practitioners from the private sector.

But that is not what’s so alarming about the forthcoming media indaba. It is the fact that the government has packed the conference with people with known sympathies to Zanu PF.

Some of the figures featuring in the programme have a pathological hatred for the private media; others presided over the decimation of The Daily News, The Daily News on Sunday, The Tribune, Business Tribune, The Weekly Times, Joy Television and Capital Radio.

They also sponsored legislation that makes Zimbabwe one of the most difficult terrains for local and foreign journalists to operate in. Therefore their commitment to media reform can only be to ensure preservation of the status quo. Some have displayed open hostility to the private media.

Kariba is unlikely to see them transform.

There appears to be a multi-faceted strategy: to hijack the conference agenda; to ensure that the large numbers of people with pro-Zanu PF sympathies dominate the proceedings and therefore successfully muzzle voices from the private media; and to commit journalists from the private sector to a pre-determined outcome that leaves measures such as Aippa largely intact.

They will be used to lend a patina of legitimacy to an outcome that in effect subverts what independent journalism stands for.

The Kariba conference will take place against a background of the arrest, imprisonment and release of Jestina Mukoko, Shadreck Anderson and recently two journalists from the state-run Bulawayo Chronicle. Edward Chikomba was not so lucky. He was found dead.

Journalists who are courageous enough to practise professionally have been rewarded with arrests, jail sentences, or worse. Not a voice was heard from those who now seek to commandeer the media reform agenda except perhaps to justify state depredations.

As it stands, the proposed conference offers no real prospect of media freedom but instead enables the usual suspects to perpetuate state control. That, let it be recorded, represents yet another violation of the global political agreement.

* This editorial appeared in The Standard on 25 April.