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

No Sign of Promised Media Relaxation

Revised law allows media free rein to cover March elections, but it seem policies will remain as restrictive as ever.
By IWPR Srdan
Recent legislative changes easing the stringent restrictions on the media in Zimbabwe have yet to make any real impact as the country heads for next month’s crucial elections.



In mid-January, amendments to the controversial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, known as AIPPA, came into effect, in what was seen as a major concession achieved in the ongoing talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.



Together with changes to other restrictive laws - the Public Order and Security Act and the Broadcasting Services Act - and amendments to electoral legislation, the bill was approved by President Robert Mugabe after having been rushed through parliament in December with the assent of both the MDC and the ruling ZANU-PF.



The legal changes came out of the negotiations between the two parties which are being mediated by President Mugabe on behalf of the Southern African Development Community.



AIPPA was introduced in 2001, as the Zimbabwean media were becoming sharply polarised between state-controlled public outlets on the one hand, and the small but vibrant privately-owned newspapers on the other. The authorities accused the private media of demonising the regime and of working as an extension of opposition political parties.



Under the amended AIPPA, foreign journalists will be allowed into the country and will have the right to accreditation for up to 60 days. Local journalists, meanwhile, will be able to work without first registering with the official Media and Information Commission, MIC - soon to be reconstituted as the Zimbabwe Media Commission as part of the changes to the law.



If the authorities stick to the spirit and letter of these legislative changes, foreign media will be able to cover the March presidential, parliamentary and local elections to an extent unprecedented in recent years. This would be a significant change, coming at a time when concern has been expressed that the crucial vote could take place far from international scrutiny as President Mugabe seeks to extend his hold on power.



However, it is already looking doubtful that the authorities will abide by their own rules.



Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu recently confounded the hopes of Bulawayo journalists by telling them that those media organisations deemed “hostile” would still not be allowed to cover the polls.



The BBC, in particular, has been singled out for exclusion from Zimbabwe on the grounds that its longstanding mission is to “peddle falsehoods” about the Mugabe regime.



Ndlovu’s remarks came after BBC journalist John Simpson entered the country covertly last month to file reports on the Zimbabwean crisis, inviting acerbic reactions from the Information and Publicity Ministry.



No information has been forthcoming on the number, identity or countries of origin of foreign journalists who might be allowed in as part of the legislative change, but for now it is looking highly unlikely that the regime will permit western reporters to cover the March ballot.



Zimbabwean journalists have told IWPR that a media blackout will merely feed accusations that the elections lack all credibility, and that the authorities pre-empting the possibility of critical reporting in the event of the kind of political violence and electoral irregularities that have marred past ballots.



The restructuring of the regulatory authority MIC into the Zimbabwe Media Commission has been hailed as part of a possible plan to grant licences to banned media outlets, and perhaps to some new players as well.



Yet a number of newspapers remain outlawed as the poll nears.



The Daily News, once the country’s biggest selling daily, has been closed since September 2003, following its allegations that ZANU-PF supporters committed human rights abuses during the run-up to elections in 2000 and 2002. This naturally riled the regime, which accused the paper of being an opposition mouthpiece.



At the height of the campaign against it, the paper’s printing press was bombed. The newspaper bounced back, but was finally banned when it refused to register with the MIC.



The Daily News and its Sunday sister-paper have now been asked to apply for a licence, and their publisher, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, submitted a formal application to the MIC on February 14.



MIC official Godfrey Chinondidyachii Mararike has said the outcome of the application will only come in 30 days’ time – which would mean The Daily News could at best acquire the right to publish just two weeks before the March 29 vote.



At the same time, the Commission reportedly met on February 17 to hold preliminary discussions on the application, suggesting that it might be prepared to fast-track this as a special case.



Media industry insiders are deeply sceptical about whether the government is sincere about granting the paper a licence in time for it to make any difference.



Former Daily News editor Geoff Nyarota recently wrote on his news website that “those who believe that Mugabe will allow the resurrection of The Daily News in time to play a meaningful role ahead of the March elections simply do not understand the dynamics of dictatorship.”



He concluded, “At this rate, by the time The Daily News is restored back to its original status, Mugabe will be ready to retire voluntarily after winning the forthcoming landmark elections by hook or by crook.”



A representative of the Media Monitoring Project, an independent watchdog group in Zimbabwe, said the credibility of any election depended not only on the existence of “a level playing field” for all political parties, but also - and even more importantly - on voters and election observers being allowed unfettered access to the media.



“It is crucial that we have enough media coverage in the run-up to the poll,” said the representative, who asked not to be named, “but it is still very unlikely the authorities will accept any applications from local private papers for registration and [allow in] foreign correspondents before the election.”



Yamikani Mwando is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Bulawayo.