Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe Allies Reject Media Reform Effort

Bid to introduce liberal media regulation resisted by powerful figures in government.
By Abel Shungu
President Robert Mugabe's media control unit, the Media and Information Commission, MIC, has begun a new onslaught on journalists in Zimbabwe, a country dubbed as one of the worst countries in which to work as a journalist.

The move by top Mugabe loyalists is aimed at derailing efforts by the independent Media Alliance of Zimbabwe, MAZ, to establish a voluntary council to regulate the media industry.

Sources within the ministry of information told IWPR that MIC chairman Tafataona Mahoso is working hand-in-glove with the ministry's top civil servant, George Charamba, to have the three organisations comprising the membership of MAZ subjected to an official investigation and then stopped from operating, just as many independent papers and broadcasting groups have been destroyed over the years by the president and his loyalists.

Mahoso diligently administers the Orwellian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, AIPPA, which dictates that domestic and foreign journalists who work without Mahoso's and Mugabe's permission can be imprisoned. Among papers forced to close was the Daily News, the country's most popular and only independent daily, read by more than a million of the 11.5 million population. Under AIPPA and other draconian laws, every foreign correspondent and many Zimbabwean journalists have been forced out of the country.

To secure the legal right to publish or work as a journalist, applications have to be made to Mahoso, a former head of the school of journalism at Harare Polytechnic, known among the media as Mugabe's hatchet man.

The drive against MAZ is being pushed most strongly by Charamba, co-designer of AIPPA with former information minister Jonathan Moyo.

“Charamba fears that he is now being isolated, together with Mahoso, after [new information minister Paul] Mangwana and some senior government officials have accepted the need for a voluntary media council and the importance of a healthy media environment,” said a government insider.

However, as the battle for the succession to 82-year-old President Mugabe hots up, it is entirely possible that Charamba is expressing through Mahoso the views of the head of state, which he has always done unstintingly in the past. Charamba recently labelled Mavis Makuni, an intelligent, highly articulate and trenchant critic of the Mugabe government with the weekly Financial Mail, a "menopausal columnist". He has always had the ear of the head of state and is one of the few senior government officials who meet Mugabe on a regular basis.

MAZ is a coalition of Zimbabwe's three main independent professional media organisations - the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, ZUJ, the Zimbabwe chapter of the Windhoek-headquartered Media Institute of Southern Africa, MISA-Zimbabwe, and the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, MMPZ.

MAZ produced a draft code of conduct for journalists and media institutions and a constitution for the proposed independent media council. MAZ’s declared aim is to render redundant the MIC, which has blackened Zimbabwe's name internationally and stifled media development and freedom of expression in the country by harassing journalists, arresting them, closing down independent papers and making it difficult to register new players in the media industry.

MAZ has been lobbying parliament, Mangwana and key government officials to push for the repeal of AIPPA and also the draconian Public Order and Security Act, POSA, which limits the right of assembly and association, and the Broadcasting Services Act, BSA, which has been used to close down all private radio and TV stations, among other repressive media laws.

There has been a barrage of attacks on MAZ in recent weeks from the MIC's Mahosa, who operates from the headquarters of the widely feared Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO, and who feels threatened by the steps to establish the voluntary media council. The council would regulate the media industry more liberally than the MIC and also receive and consider complaints from the public about media conduct.

In the more fluid situation developing inside government in the struggle to succeed Mugabe, who has been in power for more than 26 years, Mangwana and an unlikely ally, Leo Mugabe, President Mugabe's nephew, favour the establishment of an independent media council. Leo Mugabe, a ruling ZANU PF party parliamentary deputy, is chairman of the influential assembly committee on transport and communications. If Mangwana and Leo Mugabe get their way, the MIC is likely to be scrapped, rendering Mahoso jobless and leaving the wings of the highly ambitious Charamba heavily clipped.

There is already panic inside the MIC, where Mahoso and Charamba fear they may soon lose their stranglehold on Zimbabwe's media.

A jittery Mahoso has resorted to fierce public insults against MAZ and its component organisations, accusing them of plotting "regime change", in the clear hope of rallying support from President Mugabe and other powerful government members.

One journalist who has continued to operate as a freelance without obtaining an AIPPA licence from Mahoso, thus risking imprisonment, told IWPR, “If you look at the language Mahoso is using, it seems he wants the organisations investigated and, worse still, banned. He knows his bosses loathe anyone or any organisation associated with the regime-change myth.”

A ZUJ executive member said, “People are trying to drag us through the mud because they realise that the voluntary media council is almost coming. Mangwana has accepted it, so has the parliamentary committee on communication. They have shown major interest in it. There are people who are not happy and are trying to throw mud at the initiative. They want Minister Mangwana to feel compromised that he is working with anti-government lobbyists.”

Mangwana recently said, "No laws are permanent and no law is cast in stone. Laws are made by society and if journalists as citizens of Zimbabwe feel the laws are bad they should table offending sections to me and then we would deal with the unjust sections."

MISA-Zimbabwe said Mahoso’s utterances are those of a person desperate to keep a job that gives him enormous powers and privileges. In a statement, MISA-Zimbabwe said, "The voluntary council will render Mahoso useless. He has not been promoting the media; he has been policing the media. He is afraid and getting isolated. His laws have never worked and we hope that government will finally see the light.”

The objectives of the independent media council, as set out in its draft documents, are to serve as a medium of understanding between the public and the media; to promote the highest ethical and professional journalistic standards; to safeguard the independence of the media; and to uphold the right of the public to be accurately and fairly informed on matters of public and general interest.

It also aims to establish codes of conduct and ethics for journalists and media institutions.

The Charamba-controlled government media, such as The Herald, Zimbabwe's only daily, and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, ZBC, the state broadcaster - the sole existing broadcasting organisation following Mahoso's closure of all independent radio and TV stations - have been resisting the formation of the media council. There is a deliberate strategy by personnel from the ZBC, The Herald and other state media organisations to hijack the ZUJ and MISA-Zimbabwe.

There are also fears in both MISA and ZUJ that moles, including CIO agents, have infiltrated their organisations with the aim of destroying the media council initiative. A ZUJ member told IWPR, “We are aware of what they are trying to do. They are causing havoc at provincial levels and have declared that they want to take over ZUJ and MISA-Zimbabwe. This is aimed at halting efforts by the two organisations to lobby for media reforms.”

Mahoso said in October that his commission has asked the government to probe the ZUJ for joining anti-government lobbyists. He singled out Nunurai Jena, ZUJ’s provincial secretary for Mashonaland West province, to be investigated for illegally providing stories, in defiance of AIPPA and other media laws, to the Voice of America radio station in Washington.

Mahoso's MIC claimed that it has documents in its possession in which ZUJ officials wrote to the Royal Netherlands Embassy and UNESCO requesting funds to advance “anti-Zimbabwe” lobbying activities. It also alleged that MISA-Zimbabwe had portrayed itself to the international donor community as “regime change activists” determined to repeal the country’s restrictive media laws.

Mahoso intensified his attacks on the eve of a recent two-day parliamentary lobbying conference organised by MAZ to push for the repeal of AIPPA, POSA and the Broadcasting Services Act, BSA, and other repressive media laws. He said the purpose of the meeting was to create “a stilted platform from which the activists may engage in an orgy of anti-Zimbabwe diatribe intended to coincide with other recently staged events”.

The reference to "other recently staged events" was to attempts by various civil society organisations to hold public anti-Mugabe demonstrations - all were ruthlessly suppressed by riot police and youth militias.

Rashweat Mukundu, national director of MISA-Zimbabwe, responded, "Tafataona Mahoso is a desperate man. He is simply incapable of doing anything positive ... He presides over a commission that has shut four newspapers and caused the

harassment, arrests and personal suffering of hundreds of media workers.

"Whose interests are Mahoso and the MIC representing? Who appointed Mahoso and who is he accountable to? Certainly not the media.

"Mahoso gloats that the MIC has done well in defending AIPPA. He does not say at what cost to the development of the media in Zimbabwe and at what cost to the rights of citizens to receive and impart information. Or for whose benefit.

"Mahoso was deployed to defend AIPPA and he now believes his own lies about the role of the media and its relationship with the state. For a man of his age, wisdom seems to have evaded him.

"The argument that the media in any democracy should not be put under state control will remain as valid for as long as the world exists. The right to receive and impart information, be it by journalists, columnists, opinions writers, fiction authors, writers of letters to the editor, cannot be made a privilege of only a few as is now the case under AIPPA."

Abel Shungu is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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