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Media Blackout Alarms Zimbabwe Journalists

Zimbabwe's independent media say it is in no one’s interests for crucial talks to take place out of the public eye.
By Jabu Shoko
Journalists in Zimbabwe are seething with anger at a blanket ban on negotiators talking to the media while talks are under way between President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

The talks, scheduled to last a fortnight, opened in Pretoria, South Africa on July 24, but the memorandum of understanding signed three days earlier made it clear the dialogue was to remain confidential.

Clause 8 of the document says specifically states that as long as the talks are going on, neither side should “directly or indirectly communicate the substance of the discussion” to the media, nor should they use the media as a negotiating platform.

Media representatives who spoke to IWPR complained that this provision was tantamount to stifling freedom of expression, as well as denying Zimbabweans the right to information about a process that could decide their future.

Iden Wetherell, chairman of the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum, said denying reporters access to information about the talks was “unhealthy and unacceptable”.

“There should be intense debate in the media around the issues contained on the MoU,” he said. “The MoU has been made public, so as editors we believe it should be debated in public. There should be frequent briefings on what is going on behind closed doors. The public have a right to comment on it and on other issues.”

Wetherell said the editors’ forum believed reporters should not be shut out, especially since the agenda for the talks suggested that a new government look at media as a priority issue. Current legislation covering media and communications is restrictive so any change will be a matter of interest to journalists themselves.

“The media has legitimate concerns, for instance the tough media laws and the issue of the public media, which has a duty to inform the nation but abuses it. Currently the public media parrots only the voice of the incumbent,” he said.

Foster Dongozi, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, ZUJ, agreed, saying, “The media is being denied access to information. It is totally unacceptable. We will not be able to know what they are plotting about our future as journalists and the media.”

During negotiations late last year, the MDC and ZANU-PF agreed amendments slightly softening the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act – a tough law used to restrict media rights since 2001. But as Dongozi said, there was no consultation with media stakeholders when the parties agreed this deal.

In the current round of talks, he said, “We need to know what’s going on, especially if there are discussions on media law reform.”

In 2003, the information and privacy law was used to close down the popular Daily News and its sister paper The Daily News on Sunday, The Tribune and The Weekly Times.

The closure of these newspapers dealt a severe blow to the MDC, which is covered unfavourably in the state-owned newspapers and the public Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. The Broadcasting Services Act has allowed government to perpetuate the monopoly enjoyed by ZBC, an institution the opposition accuses of naked bias.

Loughty Dube, who heads the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, a regional watchdog, welcomed the signing of the MoU but insisted that negotiators should ensure the “transitional process” enjoyed public confidence.

“This can only be achieved in an environment that immediately allows citizens to enjoy their fundamental right to freedom of expression, association, assembly, access to information and media freedom,” said Dube.

Citing the need to end harassment, arrest and assaults against journalists, to repeal repressive laws and to allow unrestricted reporting in Zimbabwe, Dube said media freedom must in future be enshrined in a new constitution.

Despite attempts to starve them of infomation, journalists working for independent media in Zimbabwe look set to continue reporting on the talks process as best they can.

“The parties to the negotiations want to turn journalists and the media into fiction writers,” said Nelson Chenga, a journalist with the privately owned Financial Gazette “Naturally we will speculate due to the gravity of the talks, which is a historic event that holds the key to the Zimbabwe crisis.”

According to Wetherall, “Nothing should be hidden from the public. The media have a duty to inform the population of what is happening behind those closed doors in Pretoria.

Attempting to silence the media, he said, would merely encourage “disinformation, half-truths and speculation, which is not very helpful at all”.

Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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