Zimbabwean journalists Journalists spurn government press freedom summit

by Busani Bafana, Inter Press Service

Media organisations this week dug in their heels over boycotting a national media conference in the resort town of Kariba, Zimbabwe. State-owned media reported that the much-postponed conference finally opened on May 8, with information minister Webster Shamu lamenting the deep divisions within the media fraternity in Zimbabwe.

"We have all been divisive. Far from standing apart and above as an estate we wish and proclaim ourselves to be, we have been appendages to a squabbling first estate which we are supposed to watch and countervail," Shamu is reported as saying in Bulawayo's state-owned daily, the Chronicle.

The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), an umbrella group of media watchdogs and practitioners, is boycotting the summit over the detention of journalist Shadreck Andrisson Manyere, the MDC Director of Security Chris Dhlamini, and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's former aide Gandhi Mudzingwa, who are facing charges of terrorism, insurgence, banditry and sabotage.

The trio are among 18 activists whose bail conditions were first revoked, and then restored earlier this week, but Manyere and the others have remained under police guard in hospital. Manyere’s bail hearing was scheduled for Friday morning. The trio’s cases have been separate from others as they are in hospital nursing injuries from the torture in prison.

The 18 activists, including Manyere who are facing terrorism charges are, through their lawyers, seeking US$7 million in compensation from the Ministry of Home Affairs for physical and psychological trauma suffered during their "unlawful" detention.

The re-arrest and re-detention of Manyere and other human rights activists triggered wide condemnation in Zimbabwe and led the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe, Media Institute of Southern Africa (Zimbabwe Chapter) and the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists) (ZUJ) to boycott the media conference convened to review Zimbabwe's media environment and policies with a view to advising the inclusive government on a new media policy.

Government convened the media conference as an outcome from the Victoria Falls cabinet retreat in March this year which agreed that the unity government should speedily work to restore a conducive media environment in Zimbabwe through policy reforms. Government’s position on the conference has been to solicit the input of stakeholders on the way forward with media reform.

Media, Information and Publicity Deputy Minister, Jameson Timba, said government wanted the conference to give guidelines on opening up both the print media and the airwaves under the existing laws and secondly to review the existing media policy and laws. He said the current laws as amended through the negotiation of the three political parties will in the interim allow for the registration of new media houses - including foreign ones - by the Media Commission provided for under Amendment 19 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

However, the government-designated line up of speakers and the choice of topics has drawn criticism from media stakeholders. The 20 thematic topics range from media freedom and regulation, media and electioneering, unionism in a divided media industry and the role of ghost sites and blogs.

Media organisations under the MAZ banner argue that they were not consulted in the preparation of the conference. Instead they have been invited to a platform whose contents and speakers are already established.

They have taken offence at the invitation of people such as chairman of the defunct Media and Information Commission (MIC), Dr. Tafataona Mahoso, and former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, who they say represent a ‘media Taliban’ that shut down the media and press freedom in Zimbabwe.

Moyo, who is now the member of parliament for the Tsholotsho constituency will speak on "Media Policy-making in Zimbabwe - a historical perspective". The Attorney-General Johannes Tomana will address the meeting on "Freedom of Expression and the Rights of the State".

According to media organisations, government should walk the talk when it comes to media reform as the continued arrest and harassment of journalists speaks volumes about the absence of press freedom in Zimbabwe.

Under the GPA, it was agreed that steps should be taken to ensure that the public media provides balanced and fair coverage to all political parties and that both the private and public media refrain from using abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred or that unfairly undermines political parties and other organisations.

The media in Zimbabwe has proposed self-regulation which would meet the expectations of all stakeholders. In 2007, the media set up the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) to promote self-regulation but it never got the opportunity to prove itself. Government was not committed as it feared that there would be breach of media ethics and hence it enforced the raft of media laws. The VMCZ has drawn up a code of conduct for journalists supported by sound editorial guidelines.

MISA Zimbabwe Chapter Chairman Loughty Dube confirmed to IPS that his organisation was not attending the conference, while the ZUJ Secretary General, Forster Dongozi, told IPS that it looked certain that ZUJ will not be participating at the national conference, pending the outcome of Manyere’s bail application.

"The conference should have been cancelled. Although engagement is important, as the conference goes on there should be knowledge that the next meeting should not be planned in a government office but should be inclusive in nature and avoid the hiccups where the media become the invitees," Dongozi said.

The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe welcomed the release of Mukoko and other political prisoners but expressed concern about Manyere’s continued detention which it said undermined the letter and spirit of the Global Political Agreement and was against terms relating to media law reform

"Such action by the authorities suggests a lack of political will to adhere to the terms of the GPA, especially as regards the restoration of a political environment that is democratic and respectful of the fair and just execution of the judicial process that is cognizant of the need to ensure the security and freedom of all Zimbabweans," reads an MAZ statement. "In the circumstances, MAZ has no option but to stand by its earlier decision not to participate in the government organized All Media Stakeholders' conference unless he is released in time for delegates to travel to the conference's Kariba venue."

"We are waiting to hear the outcome of court hearing and we appreciate that they have released 13 others but one of those held at present is a journalist and it would therefore be inappropriate to head off to the conference just because others have been released," Iden Wetherell, the ZNEF chair told IPS.

article originally published at Inter Press Service.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey