Changes to Zimbabwe's media framework, negotiated between government and opposition, are nothing to get excited about, writes Iden Wetherell in The Zmbabwe Independent. Journalists were not consulted, and it seems more than likely that individuals appointed to ostensibly reformed bodies will be hostile to media freedom. The country and its media needs more than cosmetic change.

Iden Wetherell writes in his column, Editor's Memo, in the Zimbabwe Independent:

THE Mauritius protocol on electoral norms, agreed by Sadc leaders in 2004, appears to be bearing a variety of fruits. Sadly, none of them are proving palatable.

The first attempt by the government to bring Zimbabwe’s electoral system into line with the region was the establishment in 2005 of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. This unprepossessing body was supposed to take responsibility for running elections. But it ended up sharing power with a Registrar-General who presided over an opaque voters’ roll and a battalion of military officers who situated themselves throughout the electoral process.

Critically, it was the government that decided who should observe elections, not the ZEC.

When this flawed system proved inadequate in terms of the Sadc guidelines, further "reforms" emerged from the South African-mediated inter-party talks. The Public Order and Security Act was amended to provide wider public space to the opposition and civil society while the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) was changed to remove the impression of Orwellian manipulation.

The state press has been quick to suggest journalists should "celebrate" this move in so far as it removes some of the more abusive features of the original legislation and provides for a regulatory media commission together with an ethics-focused media council clearly designed to over-shadow the self-regulating Media Council of Zimbabwe (MCZ) now operating in the independent sector.

But as the MCZ’s chairman, Muchadeyi Masunda, points out, any system of regulation established under the widely discredited Aippa will be tainted by the way in which this legislation has been applied in the past

This leads to a related point. No amount of institutional reform will work where there is an absence of political will. Journalists were not consulted when the two parties drew up the Aippa amendments. And judging by previous appointments to the outgoing Media and Information Commission, the proposed Zimbabwe Media Commission will contain individuals who have made no secret of their hostility to a free media. Journalists at all levels must resist any attempt to apply a cosmetic make-over to the state’s oppressive edifice of media control. This is the same state that was responsible for the abduction and torture of two Standard journalists in 1999 and then refused to cooperate with a court-ordered investigation.

It is the same state that closed down the Daily News, the Daily News On Sunday, the Tribune, and the Weekly Times. It is the same state that deported foreign correspondents on spurious grounds in recent years and continues to abuse the public media for partisan purposes.

Newspapers and broadcast media are crudely manipulated by state officials and provide daily examples of unprofessional behaviour including the propagation of invective and deceit. None of this is acceptable in a democratic environment and certainly not in the run-up to an election where voters have to make informed choices.

The government must immediately scrap its plans for a media council and instead allow its journalists to join the existing council which is open to all media.

It should admit to the country any bona fide journalist to cover the elections and stop interfering in the administration and output of the public media. Above all, the "public" media should act as a genuine public media and cultivate diversity and professional standards which are woefully lacking at present.

Nobody takes the government-run media seriously which must be a disadvantage to government itself. Academic institutions have also failed to establish the requisite standards for media training by buying into the state’s clumsy attempts at doctrinal conformity. Journalists in this day and age cannot be expected to echo the government’s facile mantras about patriotism and sovereignty when its record is one of persistent failure.

The amended version of Aippa, while a marginal improvement on the original Act, does not meet the requirements of democratic reform. State regulation has been a failure wherever it has been applied. And the complete absence of consultation in drawing up the amendments suggests a culture of prescription into which the opposition has been co-opted.

Zimbabwe continues to fail any compliance test with the Mauritius terms. It does not permit a free media to flourish and it does not encourage media diversity — note the complete absence of radio stations other than ZBC.

We do not need amendments to bad laws or a state which prescribes how the press should conduct itself. What we need is a responsible and robust press that can fulfil its watchdog role and assist the public in making an informed choice at the polls.

* Iden Wetherell is editor of the Zimbabwe Independent. This opinion appeared as his column Editors Memo.