Three years after the adoption of the much-touted so-called progressive constitution that embraces media freedom and access to information, journalists and media practitioners in Zimbabwe say the operating environment has not improved as some of them are at times arrested and intimidated by the state.
Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world today in commemorating World Press Freedom Day amid concerns that the government has not scrapped media laws like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act or AIPPA, Public Order and Security Act and Broadcasting Services Act, which are widely viewed as impeding media freedom in the country.
Independent journalist Pindai Dube said journalists continue to operate while fearing for their lives.
“Nothing much has changed because journalists are being arrested. We had journalists from Newsday and Sunday Mail being arrested. We have a paper tiger government that has good laws but does not implement them. Recently we had the High Court quashing criminal defamation and we even have government officials criticizing some of the media laws but nothing practical has been done. Nothing has changed.”
Dube said he expects the government to respect its own constitution and ensure that Zimbabweans enjoy free expression and freedom of the media as stipulated in the supreme law of the land.
Another journalist, Everson Mushava, said there have been very few achievements in terms of media freedom in Zimbabwe which he, however, noted were overshadowed by the repressive operating environment.
Mushava said the recent threats by the government to clamp down on social media has even added to the fear that Zimbabwe is not genuine in ensuring that it embraces freedom of expression and the media.
“There has been one big achievement, the striking off of criminal defamation laws by the Constitutional Court but the operating environment largely remains the same. There has been reluctance by the Zanu PF government to align laws to remove the repressive laws such as AIPPA. The Zanu PF government can reactivate these laws if they are not struck off the statute books.
“The arrests of journalists also shows Zimbabwe still has a long way to go worse still with President Mugabe even threatening to clamp down on social media. It infringes on the provisions of the constitution and shows lack of commitment in freeing the media environment.”
ACCESS TO INFORMATION
Tabani Moyo, advocacy officer of the Media Institute of Southern Africa or MISA-Zimbabwe, said the media laws in the country hinder the enjoyment of media freedom and access to information.
“The major challenges have been to do with our laws. We have our progressive bill of rights but the supporting legislation is speaking to the contrary. Our main challenge is while the constitution promotes the right to free press, right to information and media freedom there has been a crippling effect brought by the laws. You saw the arrests that took place but a plus was registered when Misa took some of these nefarious provisions of the Criminal Defamation to court.”
Moyo said besides the crippling media laws, the industry's viability is also threatened.
“Our main challenges spill in the issues to do with media viability itself. Many of the newspapers are folding and some that got licences failed to take off and within the same sphere others are operating on shoe-string margins. So the issue of employment has become critical, rates for freelancing and remuneration for those in mainstream employment.
“There is also a challenge in the digital migration. We do not have enough content. In terms of the internet we also have high interest rates compared to the other countries in the region hence access to information becomes expensive.”
Barnabas Todhlana, secretary general of the Editors Forum, added that today's World Press Freedom commemorations serve as a reminder of some issues that have not yet been done in Zimbabwe.
“Media laws and policy reform especially AIPPA and BSA, issues of sustainability in the media industry especially for newspapers, transparency on the digitalisation programme, professionalism and ethics and safety for journalists are our major concern.”
ZUJ: TOUGH TIMES AHEAD
Foster Dongozi of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists said the recent arrest of independent journalists Nqaba Matshazi and Xolisani Ncube on charges of criminal defamation could be a warning that things would be tough in Zimbabwe in the near future.
According to MISA-Zimbabwe, at least 25 journalists have either been arrested or intimidated by the state in the last 16 months.
This years' World Press Freedom Day celebrations in the country are being held under the theme “Access to Information and fundamental freedoms. This is your right. The localized theme is Media Sustainability in the Digital Age”.
An annual report released Wednesday by the independent, Washington-based watchdog organization, Freedom House, gave Zimbabwe a cautious upgrade from a “not free” to a “partly free” status, for some slight improvements in 2015.