Unfettered press vital for democracy

via Unfettered press vital for democracy 11/05/2014 by Learnmore Zuze NewZimbabwe

“It is disheartening, in light of the clear provisions of the new constitution, to see the continued criminalization of journalism.”

IN one of his analytical interludes, India’s founding charismatic leader Mahatma Gandhi wrote that it is almost impossible to foster common values or unite a nation without some kind of journal. Armed with simple truth and humility, Gandhi preached a seemingly lethargic gospel of non-violence which, against all odds, saw the demise of the well-oiled imperialist machinery of British rule in India. The shrewd Gandhi had a complete mastery of the huge responsibility of the media to communities and nations.

Every country needs a vibrant press in forging ties between peoples and in the redress of societal ills. Being a critical component of any democracy, it is imperative that the freedom of the press is defended. It is a right bestowed upon every society to receive knowledge and information. However, this right is not exactly realizable where the press is shackled.

Last Saturday should have seen the commemorations of the World Press Freedom Day taking place but the commemorations were disrupted and cancelled at the 11th hour. The disruption came at a time when the struggle against laws that muffle media freedom has intensified in the country. The disruption, which Professor Jonathan Moyo described as neither in the public nor national interest, does little to inspire international confidence in the freedom of our press. Furthermore, that Zimbabwe is a party state to the United Nations under whose auspices the event is held actually earns us global opprobrium as a country.

Now, democratic discourse and a fettered press do not mix. The statutes in question smack of fascism and have rendered the profession a landmine field with journalists having to exercise chameleonic caution in their daily routines in fear of arrest. Oftentimes, the fear of making errors gives birth to errors. The repressive laws strike fear in the hearts of media practitioners to the extent that they are bound to err in trying to be overly cautious. It is disheartening to see the continued criminalization of journalism in light of the clear provisions of the new constitution. For instance, certain sections of the media law in Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) are not consistent with the new constitution.

It is an affront to democracy when journalists have to carry out their work in an atmosphere laden with fear and intimidation, regardless of the backing of the constitution. The continued use of repressive statutes brings with it a plethora of negatives for a country badly in need of a clean image on the international front. It hints at the absence of democracy and does not engender a spirit consistent with best international media practice. The country will, for as long as these impinging laws are not rescinded, carry the tag of an unsightly human rights record. This in turn has a negative bearing on the country’s overall image especially in the financial attempts to resuscitate the ailing economy.

The fundamental basis for freedom of the press, especially in a nascent democracy like ours is that people are the ultimate decision makers and their voice has its founding in the constitution. The instrumental law in the arrest of journalists is found within our statutes and its constitutionality is extremely questionable with media lawyers and practitioners calling for its speedy abrogation. The statutes do not, in the slightest sense, adhere to best practices internationally nor do they reflect on democracy.

The very second Section of the Zimbabwean constitution states that, “This constitution is the supreme law of Zimbabwe and any law, practice, custom or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid to the extent of the inconsistency.” The constitution, being the organic law of the land, takes precedence over any statute. It is therefore without question that the law (statute) is invalid as it contradicts the constitution. Truth itself is most likely to be available and widely believed with an unfettered press. However, the current existence of stiff and intimidating laws continues to instill fear in practitioners going about their work. Of great importance is that the necessary reforms should not only continue to beIndaba or workshop talk but they should be seen to be effected.

On the other extreme, it is critical for media practitioners to abide by the highest ethical standards in their work. There is a fine distinction between freedom of the press and freedom to abuse the citizenry. The media should never be a vehicle for settling personal scores. It is unbecoming and unacceptable for the media to fabricate stories about people or to promote corruption. Media freedom should never be a gateway to the abuse of fellow citizens knowing full well that they do not have the same apparatus to fight back. It is therefore incumbent upon all media practitioners to uphold the ethics tirelessly emphasized in their profession.

Ultimately, the need for the statutes in question to be aligned to the constitution is urgent and overwhelming for, there is no need for a country to carry on with laws that infringe on media freedom of expression.

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