After haggling and quarrelling, Zimbabwean journalists and the
government appear to have found agreement on the need to kick-start
media reforms although there is still concern over the arrests of media
practitioners, writes a correspondent.

A new spirit was evident at the three-day All Media Stakeholders Conference held in the resort town of Kariba recently where journalists in attendance called on the government to repeal all the tough media laws.

The conference had been thrown into disarray after the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), a grouping of national editors, journalists and media monitoring groups, pulled out in protest at the arrests of journalists and human rights defenders.

MAZ had set conditions for their participation but organizers resolved to go ahead with the conference, and members of MAZ, in their individual capacities, joined other key stakeholders in Kariba.

"We recommend that AIPPA (Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) be replaced by two laws, a Freedom of Information Act, which will open up the media environment, and a Media Practitioners' Registration Act, making registration of journalists a formality," the conference said at the end of the three-day meeting.

The Conference recommended also the review of the Criminal Law Codification Act, the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and Public Order Security Act (POSA) – laws which have been used by the government of President Robert Mugabe to muzzle the press.

Other recommendations include the full transformation of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) into a truly public broadcaster as well as registering newspapers with the Post Office.

Deputy Minister of Information and Publicity Jameson Timba said: "The government will make the final decision, but it is going to invite other players, including those who are not here, to submit their views," Timba, a member of Prime Minister Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said.

He pointed out that stakeholders who  were not present would be accorded the opportunity to input their recommendations under the thematic topics which guided the Kariba indaba.

Timba also denounced AIPPA, POSA and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act as a hindrance to the free flow of information through the harassment and arrests of journalists. He said that the laws would be repealed in the long run and reformed in the interim.

The conference in Kariba had been put in doubt after security agents re-arrested and detained journalists – Jestina Mukoko and Shadreck Manyere – who are facing terrorism charges.

Both had been placed on bail which had been "inexplicably" revoked sparking a boycott of the conference by MAZ. However, the government bowed to pressure and released the duo who will face trial in June.

Despite showing commitment to working with media stakeholders in providing necessary reforms, the government launched a crackdown against journalists and recently arrested the editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent, Vincent Kahiya, and his news editor ConstanineChimakure, on charges of publishing falsehoods and information pre-judicial to the state.

This was after the Zimbabwe Independent had in its May  8 edition published the names of the security agents who tortured and detained Mukoko, Manyere and 27 other human rights activists.

The paper had obtained the information from the Attorney General's office which had been included on the indictment papers of the human rights defenders. The duo has since been released on bail.

But despite the arrests, MAZ has joined fellow colleagues in its support of the media reforms.

"Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) reiterates it’s position on the reformation of the media in the country, stating that it is key towards building reforms that will be lasting and acceptable to all media players in Zimbabwe.

"The MAZ position which was submitted to the Ministry of Information, emphasizes the substitution of statutory regulation with self regulation, a guarantee of media freedom in a new constitution, the transformation of Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation into a true public broadcaster and the disinvestment of government from the newspaper industry among other issues," it said.

MAZ added that its boycott of the conference was caused by the fact that the initial conference of 28- 29 March 2009 was organized inclusively and was acceptable, as all media stakeholders were part of the planning committee which came up with the initial program.
It noted that the postponement of the meeting came with governments new programme flooded with media “hangmen” such as Media and Information Commission head Tafataona Mahoso and former Information Minister, Professor Jonathan Moyo.

In mapping the way forward, MAZ recommended a review of the resolutions by media stakeholders of Kariba conference; cessation of all harassment, intimidation, illegal detentions torture and criminalisation of journalists, media practitioners and media houses.
It also recommended the establishment of the Zimbabwe Media Commission in terms of the amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act of January 2008 with the full knowledge that statutory regulation of the media is not preferable and that in Zimbabwe’s current political climate, any such constitution of the statutory media council must be viewed as an interim measure that will eventually pave way for self regulation of the media as well as  monitor the state controlled print media and ensuring  that it allows  fair coverage of all political views, ceases hate language and is affordable to ordinary members of the public in order to allow for greater access to information.