Zimbabwe's parliament on Tuesday approved four pieces of legislation providing for sweeping reform of the country's security, media and electoral laws in an explosion of bipartisan activity that seemed to bode positively for resolution of the crisis that has bedeviled the Southern African country for the better part of a decade.
The lower house whisked legislation amending the much-maligned Public Order and Security Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Broadcasting Services Act and a recently drafted electoral law through three readings.
The legislation now goes to the senate where it is expected to receive the same fast-track treatment, then on to President Robert Mugabe for signature. It is presumed the legislation has his blessing as his ruling party holds a parliamentary supermajority.
The amendments are a spinoff of the crisis resolution talks that have been under way since March under the auspices of the Southern African Development Community with mediation by South African President Thabo Mbeki. Though the talks are said to have deadlocked over the related questions of the adoption of a new constitution and the date of the next elections, the action in parliament suggested positive momentum.
Secretary General Tendai Biti of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change formation led by MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai, cautioned that it remains to be seen if the amendments bring "tangible changes on the ground," where the opposition has alleged that its supporters have continued to be targeted by political violence.
"There is an opportunity for Zimbabwe to have a new beginning," Biti said, however. "We have gone far in this dialogue."
The changes to the Public Order and Security Act include provisions saying that those organizing public meetings can appeal to a magistrate if blocked by the police. The opposition has long been hindered by police obstruction of campaign rallies.
Amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act reconstitute the Media and Information Commission as the Zimbabwe Media Commission, with significantly reduced powers and effective self-regulation by journalists.
Amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act would oblige the public broadcasting establishment, long patently biased in favor of the government and ruling party, to provide news and public affairs programming that meets high journalistic standards and which is fair, unbiased and independent from state or commercial interests.
The revisions to the Broadcasting Services Act will allow foreigners to hold majority stakes in a Zimbabwean broadcasting organization.
Attorney Otto Saki of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human rights said the amendments are welcome, but wouldn't level the electoral playing field by themselves.