Zimbabwean media freedom watchdogs on Friday called for a major overhaul of the country’s offensive media laws and an end to the arrest of journalists.
In statements released Friday to mark World Press Freedom Day, which will be celebrated on Saturday, the media freedom watchdogs united in condemning the use and abuse of obnoxious laws to harass, intimidate, arrest and detain journalists.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said media freedom remains fragile as evidenced by the ever-increasing persecution and prosecution of media practitioners and ordinary members of society on charges of criminal defamation and use of insult laws.
In April, police arrested four journalists namely Stanley Gama and Fungi Kwaramba of the Daily News and Nevanji Madanhire and Moses Matenga of NewsDay.
Gama and Kwaramba were arrested at the instigation of controversial businessman Kamal Khalfan over stories linking the Omani citizen to alleged underhand deals in the country while Madanire and Matenga were detained and interrogated over a story headlined “Chihuri, you are responsible”.
The publication of the story came after Neil Tanatswa Mutyora, died late last month after sustaining serious head injuries when he was knocked down by a commuter omnibus driver, who was fleeing away from a “menacing police officer” as law enforcement agents gave chase to the driver. The NewsDay duo was charged with contravening Section 31 (a) (i) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act as the police claimed that the journalists published or communicated false statements prejudicial to the State with the intention to incite or promote public disorder or public violence or endangering public safety.
“Zimbabwean journalists and ordinary citizens have little to cheer as they continue to suffer persecution by State and non-State actors, who routinely use criminal defamation and insult laws to charge dozens of people and suppress criticism. The laws that Zimbabwean authorities have relied upon – such as the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act – to muzzle free speech are outdated and have no place in a modern democracy,” ZLHR said in a statement.
The influential human rights organisation also criticised the government for being insincere to media reforms even though it had set up the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) several months ago to examine professional standards and ethics in the media industry, a process which would advise the government on media policy.
“We find it strange and questionable that IMPI would continue with its work while journalists are still being taken to police stations just to harass them. ZLHR believes that actions are louder than words. If we don’t see a Bill repealing the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act or a Bill that does away with the provisions of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act which violate the Constitution, then we can’t say the government is sincere on implementing media reforms. It would remain cheap talk,” ZLHR said.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Zimbabwe) expressed concern over government lethargy in implementing legislative reforms as demanded for in terms of Section 61 and 62 of the new constitution.
“Existing laws such as AIPPA, Public Order and Security Act (POSA), Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), Censorship and Entertainment Controls Act, Interception of Communications Act, Official Secrets Act and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Act, among others, immediately stick out as some of the laws crying for wholesale repeal or amendment of some of their provisions,” MISA said.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) which welcomed the establishment of IMPI decried the statutory regulation of the media and called for the realignment of media laws with the new constitutional provisions on freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information.
“Section 61 and 62 of the constitution elaborates and guarantees Freedom of expression, freedom of the media and access to information which is yet to be fully realised in the country,” ZimRights said.