With the first moves being made towards real reform of the Zimbabwe media, it is critical that journalists put their factionalist pasts behind them and rediscover the principles of professionalism, writes Vincent Kahiya in the Zimbabwe Independent. We should reject all attempts to find a half-way house between repression and freedom.

Vincent Kahiya writes in the Zimbabwe Independent:

The Ministry of Information will this weekend convene an all-stakeholders' media conference to guide government's media policy.

As we welcome this initiative by the ministry, we should not lose sight of the fact that government's meddling in the media has resulted in a crisis which the all-stakeholders' conference now seeks to amend.

We have today media that has be been sculpted to support narrow political interests. The media-law regime in Zimbabwe over the past 10 years smacks of the depraved state intent to close off the media space and to punish dissent through statutory regulation.

Colleagues in the government-controlled media have lived a charmed life in which they see the raft of egregious media laws on our statutes as weapons to fight opposition media.

But the chickens are coming home to roost. Scribes at the Chronicle were last week victims of the Criminal Defamation Act, a colonial law used and abused to prevent legitimate criticism of those in the public spotlight.

The paper condemned the arrest of their editor and reporter last week. We join them in this condemnation and we hope that the paper will also come to the party in pushing for media reform.

The conference at the weekend is an opportunity for media practitioners to begin the process of emptying the tool kit of repression.

We have seen journalists who gleefully carry the oppressor's toolbox and celebrate the arrest and detention of fellow reporters.

We have seen government prevailing on state scribes to bar them from participating in media projects designed to advance press freedom. The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe is a case in point.

As editors, we have differed with our colleagues in the state media over their perception of Aippa and other media laws which they regard as necessary.

I do not know if they all still do! Resultantly there are two groups representing editors. We have differed on fundamental principles.

One of the thematic workshops at the conference has a title framed: How should Zimbabwe, if at all, regulate, accredit and register media practitioners and houses in the current and future constitutional dispensation?

Governments love statutory control of the media. Failure by the media to collectively oppose state control has been tragic.

The formation of the GNU is optimistically seen as a major step toward undoing state excesses which have divided the country into camps.

The divisions have also been apparent in the media.

They have manifested in the reportage of our crisis. It is apparent that media in Zimbabwe have been fractured almost along the same fault lines as those dividing political protagonists.

The reporting of conflict in Zimbabwe has resultantly been dominated by hate speech, intolerance of minority views and rights, and instances of unethical amplification of conflict.

The manner of reporting has been about "us and them" as the media was easily co-opted into political camps that ventilate dogmas and propaganda.

Professionalism in the media has been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency as media organisations have become extensions of political entities.

In all this the profile of the industry and that of the individual journalists have become blurred. The journalist has become a public relations practitioner, a political commissar for political forces and a propagandist.

Stories published in printed and broadcast in the electronic media are laced with crude adjectives and innuendo to advance sectoral and political causes.

There is hate speech in news and editorials as journalists compete in the quest for unprofessional conduct. The new unity government's Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee — whose members are drawn from all key political parties — has recognised hate speech as a major impediment to national healing.

Local media monitors, the Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project, had this to say about the hate speech that characterised the election period in the first half of 2008: "In Zimbabwe hate speech has been a cause of much social disharmony that needs to be stopped by exposing it for what it is."

The Information ministry has said it is playing a facilitator's role at the conference. We hope the ministry's role remains that.

Practitioners and stakeholders should be allowed to decide on what media Zimbabwe should have.

Heavy-handed attempts by the state to regulate the media have brought us to where we are today.

Stakeholders at the conference have an opportunity to demonstrate to government that self-regulation works and that they have the capacity to achieve that.

The stakeholders should also be on the look out for political attempts by government to come up with a transitional arrangement in media law reform in tandem with the interim state of the unity government.

We should reject all attempts to have the media directed towards a halfway house between repression and freedom.

Zimbabwe is a country on the path to change and it is therefore incumbent on the media to augment the change process by giving readers information that is accurate, impartial and responsible — as set out in the global political agreement.

It is appropriate at this stage to sharpen the profile of a journalist and remove all political baggage. That's good old journalism that only comes when we go back to basics.

* This opinion piece first appeared in the Zimbabwe Independent on 29 march 2009.