Media reforms necessary to guarantee freedom of expression

The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) and Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), as part of World Press Freedom Day Commemorations, hosted the Bornwell Chakaodza Memorial Lecture on 2 May 2013, where discussions centered on the need for media reforms to guarantee freedom of expression.

 

Making a presentation on freedom of expression, the new Constitution and prospects for the future, Commissioner Chris Mhike of the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) stressed that freedom of speech or freedom of expression were the inseparable element of a democratic society.

 

He noted that Zimbabwe was not yet a truly democratic state and this impacted significantly on the citizens' capacity to enjoy or exercise certain freedoms, including the freedom of expression.

"Zimbabwe is at worst, a pseudo-democracy; and at best, a nation transiting towards true democracy, € said Commissioner Mhike who pointed out that there was insufficient political will to bring about the necessary media reforms to secure or guarantee freedom of expression for Zimbabweans.

"As matters stand, there is very little political will, if any, on the part of those who wield power, to afford Zimbabweans, including the press, the levels of free expression and access to information, that they truly deserve, € said Commissioner Mhike.

 

Whilst he acknowledged that the Draft Constitution contained many progressive provisions in terms of media reforms and guaranteed the enjoyment of certain liberties, including the freedom of expression, Commissioner Mhike said there was need to ensure that it was not merely theoretical.

"With the flawed 'democrats' who constitute Zimbabwe's ruling class lacking the political will to afford citizens optimum levels of freedom of expression, press freedom, the free flow of information, healthy levels of access to information, and other related rights, it remains to be seen if the gains made in the Draft Constitution will really translate into a more free society; and a more free Zimbabwean Press, € stated Commissioner Mhike.

 

Speaking at the same event, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media, Information and Publicity, Communication and Technology, Honorable Settlement Chikwinya said that the 2013 UN theme for World Press Freedom Day was very befitting in the context of Zimbabwe.

"The theme - Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media - is particularly relevant in Zimbabwe because in spite of all of Zimbabwe's commitments in its constitution and regional and international conventions, Zimbabwe is yet to provide an environment in which citizens are safe to speak, € said Hon. Chikwinya.

 

He pointed out that whilst Zimbabwe's constitution has always acknowledged freedom of expression it has remained evident in the majority of cases that:

 

"The Zimbabwean government has sought to repress the right of expression from the words one speaks in print, broadcasting and including personal speech between people in the form of emails and telephone conversations, of late this has extended to messages over the internet, social networking forums such as Facebook, € noted Hon. Chikwinya.

 

He said that in legislation and in practice, citizens of Zimbabwe have therefore been denied the right to speak and this could only be remedied by ensuring that media reforms take place.

 

"In retrospect the GPA, looks at the minimum requirements to restore some kind of sanity in the media environment but it does not do enough on media reform that will transform the environment to allow for freedom of expression particularly in terms of amending the repressive legislation that limits the freedom of expression €.

 

Hon. Chikwinya said there remained serious gaps in ensuring freedom of expression in Zimbabwe and these included the continued use of hate speech and abusive language; undemocratic media laws that remain in place, statutory media regulations through a disciplinary body, lack of independence in boards and public bodies, biased coverage by ZBC as well as continued harassment and arrests of media workers and citizens who express themselves.

 

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Independent Editor, Dumisani Muleya noted that the State could no longer rigidly control the free flow of information due to the explosion of digital and social media and the increase of smartphones, which allowed for citizen journalism to take root.

 

"The State has always dominated the broadcaster and exercised vast control over the print media and the State is still the dominant player in the country's media landscape. What mitigates this is the explosion of digital and social media in leveling the playing field, € said Muleya who argued that the emergence of smartphones ensured a much more transparent electoral process from a knowledge and information perspective.

 

"The next elections will be different from a media point of view and coverage in that this is the first time that we will go to elections in an era where the digital media will be a big factor, in an era where, smartphones will definitely be a key factor in how the elections will be reported, € stated Muleya.

 

Muleya also acknowledged the Draft Constitution to be a positive development but expressed reservations as to whether it would be enough to secure freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

"Now that we're moving towards elections we have made an important gain which, at least in theory, secures our freedom, because the enshrinement of the freedom of the media in the constitution is a very important development, € said Muleya who was quick to point out that it may not be sufficient to change attitudes of hostility that have always prevailed.

 

"That attitude of residual hostility towards the media is still there. We're going to see more of that towards the elections, they'll be increased hostility, they'll be increased threats and possible arrests of journalists going towards elections. This is how it has been this is how it still is although we're seeing more licensing of newspapers since 2009, € pointed out Muleya.

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