The newly established Media Council of Zimbabwe, established in the teeth of opposition from the government, represents an attempt by the media to take charge of the nessary agenda of transformation, writes Rashweat Mukundu, country director of Misa in Zimbabwe.

Rashweat Mukond  of Misa-Zimbabwe writes:

The launch of the Media Council of Zimbabwe (MCZ) on 8 June 2007  spurred the struggle for media freedom in Zimbabwe to a new height where the media itself should be in the driving seat.

My optimism might easily be dismissed as naïve, coming as it does against the backdrop of the relentless  repression against the media and the citizens' right to freedom of  expression.

That optimism is, however, based on the belief that the agents of  change are the oppressed themselves and not the oppressors. The MCZ, in  other words, marks the resurrection of the repressed.

The MCZ is described in different terms depending on the side one belongs to. Simply put, it is a move by the media to take charge of its own affairs, to  boldly say to society we can be accountable and that media workers can  contribute to the development of the media without the chains imposed by  laws such as AIPPA.

The Zimbabwe media, be it private or state-owned, has been at the  receiving end of repression resulting in the closure of four independent  newspapers under a repressive regime of state regulation and other extra-judicial means. The state media is persistently purged of dissenting  voices and has been made a shameful mouthpiece of the ruling elite.

Having the media take the initiative through processes such as the MCZ  is a way of practically seeking media transformation, accountability  and responsibility. The MCZ will not, under the present circumstances,  result in the licensing of the Daily News, The Tribune or the Weekly  Times, but is in fact, opening a new front in dismantling the repressive  media law regime currently suffocating media development in Zimbabwe. It  might as well be true that some banned newspapers might be gone for  good but the struggle by those still operating and those banned should set  a firm and secure platform for those that will emerge in the future.

Taking the drivers seat in this case, is thus embarking on a long  journey of seeking and acting to influence change, for ourselves and  posterity by retaining the public's confidence in the media.  The MCZ presents  a chance for media workers to unite on a common idea and broaden the  struggle for change with the support and involvement of the citizenry  who are set to benefit and use the MCZ as an amicable platform for  conflict resolution.

The mere existence of the MCZ is a statement that the media is part of  society and that for the media to exist it needs two distinct groups:
 the public and the publishers/media organisation(s).  For the MCZ to  work it needs public support because the basis of its formation is to  enhance interaction with the public and amicable resolution of disputes in  a non litigation manner  as opposed to what we have witnessed under the  Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).

Under the current media laws, the media are bombed and intimidated  notwithstanding the numerous arrests of journalists. It must be emphasised  that a critical missing component in the protection of the media in  Zimbabwe has been lack of public support for media diversity. The closure  of newspapers has thus not only deprived the public access to  alternative information but subjected the population to fatal doses of  government propaganda that serves no public interest agenda.

The MCZ, it is argued, brings the two together for a common cause on  the premise that the media belongs to the people and not to the ruling  elite or the Stalinist Ministry of Information and Publicity which spends  taxpayers' money making phone calls to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting  Corporation (ZBC) directing how stories are to be covered. The same  ministry argues that AIPPA is a law that defends “national interests”, an  obvious confusion and failure to distinguish national interests from  partisan selfish interests.

If the media belongs to the people and  media owners in their various  and diverse forms are using the public space to spread information and  honestly make a living, then it follows that the same media should be  responsible and accountable to the public. The MCZ then becomes the  platform for public and media interaction away from the dictates of policy  makers who have totally divergent interests with regard to the media  with those of both the media itself and the public.

The vociferous defense of AIPPA as a necessary piece of legislation by  the Ministry of Information and Publicity will not abate anytime soon  nor should we be foolish to expect the policy dinosaurs in that Ministry  to change. Change will, however, come and it will come through  struggle and on our own terms. The Ministry of Information will not change because it cannot. Its political life and that of its masters depend  on repressive laws like AIPPA.

The MCZ is therefore a tool to fight bad policy.   By its very nature
 the MCZ cannot work with the state-controlled Media and Information  Commission (MIC) – it cannot co-operate with AIPPA because the MCZ is an  antithesis of statutory regulation.  The MCZ might fail to get the full  co-operation of all media players, which is sad, but nevertheless  expected because the dominant media is in the hands and control of the policy  dinosaurs. What has to be stated for certain though is that the MCZ is  not going to simply fade away because some 'powerful' permanent  secretary, pseudo intellectuals and soldiers running this Ministry dislike  the idea.

The same people who pride themselves with crafting AIPPA, shutting down  newspapers and causing the near decimation of the privately owned  media in Zimbabwe are still caught up in the Stalinist era with regard to  the role of the media.

The media policy dinosaurs within the Ministry of Information and  Publicity have no tangible or sensible reason to oppose the MCZ other than  that it is not their own initiative and secondly, it is a threat to  their stranglehold on the media and the abuse they pile week in and week  out on innocent citizens in civil society, the opposition, and private  media, abusing publications including The Herald and Sunday Mail.

What has obviously escaped these policy dinosaurs is the movement that  has taken place with regard to media the world over. These movements  include the diversification of channels of media content distribution,  demystification of the media as a newsroom or physical entity that can  be shut, threatened, confiscated and regulated. New technologies the  world over enable wider participation in information creation,  dissemination and consumption. This means that media regulation has to take into  account the opening up of media space to as many people as possible,  whether through personal websites, blogs, and other online publications.

Participation in information dissemination is no longer the  responsibility of a few through regulated media houses, but anyone can do so  freely – anyone can sell and disseminate information. Media policy in  Zimbabwe should look at the benefits of these new technologies in social  and economic development. Media policy can, therefore, not be  developed and administered ruthlessly by a paranoid system that looks at the  media as an enemy and sees and confuses its selfish interests with  national interests.

The MCZ is a statement to say that true national interests are  protected by broader participation and involvement and not through exclusion,  repression and persecution.

* Rashweat Mukundu is the National Director of MISA-Zimbabwe