Zimbabwean journalists are planning to challenge the starkly increased licensing and registration fees gazetted by the Media and Information Commission (MIC), writes Gugu Ziyaphapha.
The new fees will see a foreign news agency paying US$32 000 (R320 thousand), while an individual journalist working for a foreign media house will pay US$4 000 (R40 thousand).
Journalists say the prohibitive fees are a ploy by the government to muzzle the press and amount to a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
Farai Hove, a Zimbabwean photojournalist says: ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œIts outrageous, the fees mean that we will have to use all our earnings just to pay for accreditation. Few reporters make close to that much money in Zim. We canÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢t pay that money, we will continue to operate ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‹Å“guerrillaÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢ journalism without the accreditation.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â
The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ), the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (Zinef) and the Zimbabwean chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) have all condemned the fees, calling them unjustified and illegal.
Top lawyer Selby Hwacha is preparing an urgent court challenge on behalf of the journalists and their representative organizations, arguing that amendments made to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) last January effectively dissolved the MIC and replaced it with the Zimbabwe Media Council (ZMC).
The ZMC has still not been appointed, and can only come into force after Parliament re-convenes on January 20. The new media regulator faces further uncertainty as it can only be functional after the elusive all-inclusive government is formed.
The journalists want the court to declare that the MIC illegal and that the MIC by demanding registration fees from journalists and media houses is in contempt of a parliamentary process which disbanded it and constituted the ZMC.
The journalists say all accreditations or registrations through the MIC must be deemed unlawful. They also want the court to allow them to continue to practice until the ZMC is fully operational.
Another lawyer, Dzimbabwe Chimbga, from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), says: "I don't see how you journalists should comply with a law that is non-existent. On the face of it, it is null and void. MIC is non-existent."
The journalists are also mounting a court challenge against the new fees. They say the fees are grossly unreasonable and were pegged without consultation with the media industry.
The proposed fees dispensation also sets out that a delay or failure to register and accredit will attract heavy penalties, which mount up per day after a missed deadline.Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â
ZUJ president Matthew Takaona says: ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œWe are surprised these fees have been put in place in the absence of a regulatory body, we don't encourage journalists to seek accreditation from an illegal entity.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â
Journalists can be jailed for two years for practising without accreditation.
The journalists are now pondering whether to comply and seek accreditation first before they challenge the fees and the legality of the MIC. They fear that the court might say they have approached the courts with ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œdirty handsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â, as happened to The Daily News when it was banned 6 years ago.
In the Daily News ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œdirty handsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â case, the paper refused to comply with licensing regulations saying it had mounted a constitutional challenge against AIPPA, which the paper argued breached media freedom.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the MIC ban saying the newspaper should have complied with the law first before challenging it.
The reporters will also send petitions and protest letters to Parliament, the main political parties in Zimbabwe and to SADC.
Under the new fees structure, temporary accreditation for foreign journalists has been pegged at US$500 (R5000).
Journalists from within SADC will pay an accreditation administration fee of US$150 (R1500)
Journalists from outside the SADC region will pay US$200 (R2000)
Forster Dongozi, the ZUJ secretary-general says : ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œOur position is that the fees are a malicious attempt to make sure there is no news that comes from Zimbabwe.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThe new fees are illegal as journalists are being forced to pay a non-existent Media and Information Commission (MIC) that has since been dissolved and replaced by the Zimbabwe Media Commission.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â
Journalists suspect the high fees are also meant to provide funding for the discredited MIC to pay its officers since it does not receive much from the government.
MMPZ says the new US-dollar-denominated fees are part of governmentÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â€žÂ¢s sustained campaign to block access to the foreign media seeking to cover the Zimbabwean story.
Misa- Zimbabwe says in a statement: "This new fees structure, published pursuant to the provisions of the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act deprives Zimbabweans and the world community of a variety of alternative sources of information to the output of the government-controlled media.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change says: ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã…â€œThe exorbitant fees being touted means that press freedom has been dollarised, much to the detriment of ordinary Zimbabweans who are starving for information.ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â