The government should look at the media as partners, not adversaries, in developing the country, writes Vote Muza in the Financial Gazette. It is a pity that the agreement between Zanu-PF and the MDC does not spell out how the public media are to be dealt with.

Vote Muza writes in the Financial Gazette:

The preamble to article xix of the political agreement signed between Zanu-PF and the two MDC formations instructs the new government to take "appropriate measures" to ensure that the public media refrains from using abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred.

What appropriate measures will be taken are not specified, and yet it would have been ideal to agree from the on-set how intransigent state controlled media houses would be dealt with.

Despite such glaring ambiguity, and others apparent in the document, the commitment to democratise the public media that has for many years gained notoriety for gutter journalism characterised by vitriol, diatribe and biased reporting on political matters is a welcome development.

A catalyst that accelerated our political and economic demise is the detest for media plurality by the Zanu-PF government, a trait developed early into independence, and worsened by the hardening of dictatorship in recent years.

I need not waste time and space documenting the numerous cases in which, journalists were tortured, arrested on trumped up charges, allegedly assassinated, deported, and several private media houses closed.

Yet, for any country to have political and economic stability, the right to freedom of expression and communication must be held aloft and protected, through unflinchingly promoting media diversity.

The benefits of a vibrant, unbiased independent media are numerous, but the most significant is the oversight and scrutiny of decisions by state officials and politicians in general.

Such a critical role if played consistently, can indeed guard against abuse of office by politicians through misuse of state resources, pilferage and other facets of corruption.

One of the biggest tasks to weigh heavily on the shoulders of the expected inclusive government is the need to inculcate a culture of fair, balanced and professional reporting by all media.

Those in charge of the public media, used to primitive reporting, where insults, defamation, and unbridled abuse of media space had become the order of the day, will have to undergo professional re-baptism or else call it a day.

Without an open system of reporting and communicating, the nation's quest for a genuine political paradigm shift and economic recovery may remain an illusion.

In the past, and to some extent, presently, our public media has been very bad for business and for political co-existence, locally and internationally.

Government owned newspapers have brazenly, and unchecked gone on a crusade to spew outright lies, misrepresentations and Soviet-like propaganda all in a vain attempt to shield the failing authorities from criticism.

In the process, those in power and their surrogates, aware that their misdemeanours are always swept under the carpet, have gradually presided over the system, promoting, rather than discouraging corruption and impunity.

Zimbabweans must be encouraged to remain in active and honest conversation about their country and how it should be managed, and such important discourse may never be assured for as long as government's previous attitude to the media persists.

In the new anticipated political dispensation, government must look at the media in general as partners in running the affairs of the state rather than adversaries.

Worldwide, the tendency has been for politicians to treat the media with mistrust, because politicians by their nature hate the truth, but however, in democratic countries, a good balance has been struck in the broader national interest to guard against an over indulged media, and the need to watch and expose abuse of office by state officials.

If we fail to learn from our mistakes and from others on how they have managed to guarantee the right to freedom of expression for the betterment of democracy and true freedom, we will be spelling further doom for our nation.

Reading especially some sections of the state controlled print media, one is left in no doubt that some editors cannot feel the blowing winds of change, ushered in by the recently signed political deal.

One notices that there are some individuals working hard to advance sectarian and divisive political agendas aimed at frustrating and defeating the existing spirit of co-operation between our major political players.

These are individuals hell bent on dragging Zimbabwe back to yesteryear politics of hatred and violence. Indeed, for some of the columnists like Nathaniel Manheru, it may be difficult to adjust to the impending new order.

Being a senior state official, as he has made the public to believe he is, more responsible, politically tolerant authorship is expected from him.

The foolhardiness of remaining immersed in the past, swimming against the forceful political tide may cause him to be swept aside or to be rendered professionally and politically irrelevant.

Zimbabweans are yearning for more television and radio stations. They want to have access to a variety of newspapers, and not be exposed to monotonous, biased news and propaganda from a monopolising state media.
They crave a new era of political openness as the bedrock of economic prosperity and freedom. Only through the freeing of the airwaves and licensing of new media voices will our country begin to enjoy some of the fruits of our hard won independence.

* Muza is a lawyer.  This column first appeared in the Financial Gazette.