In the midst of the harsh environment that is Zimbabwe, media groups got together in January to set up an independent media council. The effort faltered, under withering criticism from the government. But Misa director Rashweat Mukundu, writing exclusively for journalism.co.za, says the body will be established on World Press Freedom Day. It's an effort to move issues of journalistic ethics away from the government and the courts – and the official media can expect to have their practices come under the spotlight.
Rashweat Mukundu writes:
On 26 January 2007 media organizations in Zimbabwe attempted to launch an independent Media Council, the Media Council of Zimbabwe (MCZ). The gathering attracted over 200 people from the media, civil society, and diplomatic community among others. It was the first serious attempt to shake off the shackles of statutory regulation imposed by the government through the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in 2002.
But the intended launch was stillborn owing to the direct threats exerted by the then acting Minister of Information and Publicity Paul Mangwana and the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport and Communications, Member of Parliament and President Robert MugabeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s nephew Leo Mugabe. Speaking at the launch, Leo Mugabe made it clear that the government would oppose the council. In his words the media would never win a war with the ruling party. Leo Mugabe went on to state on behalf of his party and government that the MCZ would be seen as a direct challenge to the statutory Media and Information Commission (MIC) and that should the media desire government support and endorsement of this project, then the media has to wait for parliament, when it so desires, to revise AIPPA and also find ways how the MCZ can work in collaboration with the MIC. Many colleagues baulked under these political threats and pressure and decided to push the finalisation of this project to a later date.
Despite the failure to launch the MCZ in January 2007, media organizations managed to set up a working committee made up of retired judges, lawyers and media workers to finalise outstanding issues on the MCZ constitution as well as finalise a list of nominees who could sit on the MCZ Committee.
More importantly the attacks on this project by Leo Mugabe, Minister Mangwana and the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Publicity, George Charamba, are telling in as far as they indicate the determination of the government to maintain a tight grip on the media in Zimbabwe. The intended MCZ is seen as a direct threat to the short and long term media policy dominance of the ruling elite. In other words media policy including any voluntary efforts by the media should have the approval of the authorities. Media policy is perceived as such by the ruling elite because it is part of the political project to maintain the hegemony of the ruling party. Through the partisan and undemocratic media policy that gave birth to AIPPA, and critically statutory regulation, the government has so far shut down four critical newspapers since 2003. Many journalists have been arrested and charged for violating AIPPA. Leading international media organisations including CNN and BBC are banned from Zimbabwe. Foreign journalists are equally banned except those from Iran, China and others from the ideologically correct countries. Through statutory regulation, the Zimbabwe government has maintained its dominance with regard to which and whose voice(s) ZimbabweÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s citizens hear. In this regard the MCZ is seen as a political threat.
Efforts to launch the MCZ were partly a reaction to the diminishing space for media operations as a result of AIPPA, and more importantly a contribution to the long-term media policy issues in Zimbabwe. The government argues that the reason it enacted AIPPA was because the media was unethical and in the words of the former Minister of Information and Publicity, now in the opposition, Jonathan Moyo, the media had failed to regulate its own affairs. In January 2007 the media responded by attempting to launch a self-regulatory MCZ, specifically to address issues of ethical reporting and provide a platform for interaction between the media and citizens. With the MCZ, the media hopes to move issues of media relationships with the public away from the courts and away from politicians. The project is premised on the notion that ethical issues in the media should not lead or result in either media closures, or arrests of media workers which also results in huge legal costs and unnecessary tensions and violates freedom of expression rights. In other words the MCZ is intended to protect media and freedom of expression rights at the same time promoting ethical, fair and balanced reporting. The question then is why would a ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“normalÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ government oppose such a noble cause. The answer, in a political environment like Zimbabwe, is not far.
The Zimbabwe government, through the state owned media is a major violator of media ethics. Not only are journalists at the state media given disks with stories from officials in the Ministry of Information and Publicity, senior officials in the Ministry – including Permanent Secretary George Charamba – write long and winding articles in the state media defaming people in the opposition, business, and civil society and private media. The state media is used to name-calling and denigrating in despicable language all those opposed to the ruling elite. This kind of writing would have been exposed and criticised thoroughly by a body like the MCZ.
The MCZ is partly a victim of the volatile political environment in Zimbabwe in which any initiative that the government is not involved in is seen as oppositional and ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œfunded by western powers to effect regime changeÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â. Those engaged in this project have been left baffled as to how an organisation as a MCZ could effect regime change.
The dream of setting a functional MCZ has not died and will not die as long as media players themselves remain engaged on the need to achieve this goal. Such players include the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, Zimbabwe National Editors Forum, and Zimbabwe Association of Editors.
Civil groups working on media and freedom of expression including the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the Media Monitoring Project have to remain prepared to support these critical players in achieving this goal. These groups are not naÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¯ve regarding the extent of opposition to this project by the ruling elite. So far all indications are that on May 3 2007, World Press Freedom Day, the unfinished business of January 26 will be finally completed. On this day the structures of the MCZ will be put in place, as well as a secretariat. The MCZ, we believe, will be functional as a symbol of the quest for freedom of the media in Zimbabwe even if only one newspaper subscribes to its jurisdiction.
* Rashweat Mukundu is director of Misa Zimbabwe.