Liberate media from this laager of laws

via Liberate media from this laager of laws November 17, 2013  by Nevanji Madanhire Zimbabwe Standard

There has been robust debate recently on the direction Zimbabwean media should take post the July 31 elections which saw the re-emergence of Zanu PF as the dominant political force in the country. Zimbabwean media is deeply polarised and it seems it will take quite a while to destroy the polarisation.

The Minister of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Professor Jonathan Moyo has taken a leadership role in the debate as it seems he wants to open a new chapter in the relationship between the media and the state.

But this debate calls for participants to begin from the beginning! What caused the polarisation in the first place? Unravelling this simple teaser will drive the debate in the right direction. At the turn of the millennium, Zanu PF, in power for two decades was shaken by the muscle of the forces threatening to wrest its hegemony. These forces were both internal and external and they found voice in the private media whose demands for democracy and good governance coincided with that of trade unionists, students and civil society.

After Zanu PF’s failure to push through a new constitution in the February 2000 referendum it was shaken to its roots. A veteran politician described that loss as a “wake-up call.” With national elections coming in two months’ time, the ruling party virtually declared war, a war they called another chimurenga alluding to the First Chimurenga, a war of resistance fought in the 1890s against settler colonialism.

Zanu PF knew from experience it wouldn’t win a war if the enemy had a powerful voice in the form of private newspapers and radio stations. The first to-do thing was to silence the voice. This saw the closure of several newspapers and the sacking of state journalists deemed sympathetic to the opposition.

Hundreds of journalists found themselves without a source of livelihood. To survive they went underground and declared war on the Zanu PF establishment.

The journalists working underground found ready support from the external element of the forces ranged against Zanu PF. The Zimbabwean story suddenly was the story and it sold like hot cakes the world over. But when journalists work underground, there is no system to police the ethics they should work under.

Among the journalists writing for the foreign media were genuine ones, but there was also a tendentious rogue element which either peddled falsehoods or exaggerated events with the aim of exerting the maximum damage on the establishment.

The state media fought blow for blow against the underground and legitimate private media becoming even more one-sided hence the polarisation we have witnessed in the past 14 years. The whole cadre of journalists not working for state media has felt and continues to feel under siege because of some of the laws that were enacted to curtail their freedom and capacity to do their work without undue influence.

These laws remain on the country’s statutes even after Zanu PF’s resounding victory in the July 31 elections. However, it has to be acknowledged that Moyo seems to have started to deal with these laws as seen in his pronouncements against a section of the Criminal Law (Codification & Reform) Act (Chapter 9:23) that criminalises journalists for defamation.

Until this laager of laws that have hindered press freedom and free expression are totally done away with journalists will continue to have a siege mentality and polarisation will continue especially when they are overly aware the laws are applied selectively.

This brings us to the rather touchy issue of the national interest. Two issues have to be addressed when considering this: what is the national interest and, can anyone under siege from the state, work for the national interest?

Two important things define the national interest; one is physical, the other is abstract. The country’s territorial integrity, therefore, its protection and defence, is in the interest of anyone who calls himself a Zimbabwean. Zimbabwean media is not polarised around this issue. For example, all Zimbabwean journalists and media houses are watching with keen interest developments in our eastern neighbour, Mozambique, because they are equally wary of the Renamo threat.

The abstract side of the national interest has to do with governance. If a country is not governed properly, that is, if it is not run to the general satisfaction of its citizens, the national interest is undermined. Citizens need the assurance that their government is responsive to their aspirations and fears. They need the security and certainty that is borne of efficient state institutions.

We have seen how in the past decade supine and fawning state media have promoted mediocrity; how they have, by omission and commission, neglected the key role of keeping the checks and balances on the three arms of the state. How they have failed to push for transparency and accountability of state institutions, human and minority rights and, how they have failed to strengthen democratic principles and defend the rule of law.

We have seen how mediocre people have risen to run state institutions and how mediocre politicians have been elected to parliament without anyone raising as much as an eyebrow. Not a single institution can be said to be running efficiently as we speak. Sadly, the mediocrity has filtered down to the citizenry. The citizens, for example, can go for weeks on end without running water or power in their homes but still behave as if that is normal. They bribe the police, health workers and even teachers and think that is normal.

A robust, critical press is important to the national interest. When a party is given a mandate to rule by the people as happened on July 31, everyone, including the media, wants the government formed thereafter to succeed, but that doesn’t mean the media should pander to the ruling party’s whim by sweeping its weaknesses under the carpet.

There are many hurdles on the government’s path and the most dangerous of these are human frailties. It is the duty of the media to look out for these. So, when the media, for instance, points to corruption in government, it isn’t being unpatriotic. When it exposes laxity in governmental institutions it’s not unpatriotic, the very opposite is true; it is working in the national interest.

For the Zimbabwean media to end the seemingly intractable polarisation that weighs it down, it should be liberated from laws that put it under siege and it should be allowed to seek new centres of thought outside politics, thereby setting the agenda for national development.