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Media Reform in Zimbabwe Proceeds at Halting Pace Despite Official Agenda

Hopes for media reform in Zimbabwe ran high in February with the installation of a national unity government, prompting donors such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO to sponsor a forum to promote discussion by editors of state-run and independent print, broadcast and Web media outlets.

That UNESCO-sponsored conference opened this week - but amidst a furor over Information Minister Webster Shamu's unilateral announcement late last week of appointments to six media boards which included a number of former senior military officers.

Media observers said the appointments boded ill for reform in the sector, in particular that of Tafataona Mahoso, former chairman of the Media and Information Commission, responsible for the 2003 closure of the Daily News, to head the Broadcasting Authority.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai declared the appointments “irregular," saying Shamu had exceeded his authority. But the minister insisted they fell within his mandate.

Opening the Unesco meeting Tuesday, George Charamba, Information Ministry permanent secretary and a key advisor to President Robert Mugabe, saying the media environment has become highly politicized, threatened to arrest the publisher of the Zimbabwe Independent and its staff if they proceeded with plans to launch a new daily paper called Newsday.

Former Daily News Editor Geoff Nyarota, now publisher of the U.S.-based online Zimbabwe Times, returned to Zimbabwe after five years exile to attend the UNESCO event. He was one of several exiled Zimbabwean invited to attend a conference session on "Building Bridges and Closing Gaps - An Editors' Dialogue Towards Common Ground."

Abigail Gamanya, programs coordinator for the Voluntary Media Counsel of Zimbabwe and a former coordinator of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe, said the two main organizations for editors - the Zimbabwe Association of Editors, representing many state media staff, and the smaller National Editors Forum, representing many from the independent media - are looking into forming a working group to provide a bridge between the organizations.

Gamanya, who helped UNESCO organize the one-day conference, said the United Nations agency wanted to serve as a "peacekeeper" in the divided media community.

For perspective on Zimbabwean media reform, seemingly stalled, reporter Sandra Nyaira of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe turned to Zimbabwe Independent Special Projects Editor Iden Wetherell and Bright Matonga, a former deputy minister of information.

Wetherell said the current media environment disheartening as there has been little real sign of commitment to reform from the uncomfortable unity government combining President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF with the Movement for Democratic Change formations of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...