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

ZANU PF U-turn on Media Regulator

Independent press council crushed at birth by the government.
By Florence Gobo
Zimbabwe’s embattled ZANU PF regime has demonstrated once again that it is in no hurry to loosen its iron grip on the media.

Just when a major reform was scheduled with the launch of an independent media regulator, comprising journalists and civil society representatives, Information Minister Paul Mangwana moved to wreck the initiative.

The official launch of the self-regulating Media Council of Zimbabwe, MCZ, was scheduled for January 26, but at the last minute Mangwana, who had said he would support such a body, performed a u-turn.

The minister told executive members of MAZ, the Media Association of Zimbabwe, that final approval of the MAZ-designed media council, would only be approved by President Robert Mugabe’s government once amendments had been made to the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Aippa, to incorporate a voluntary and independent media council. This amounts to a near-permanent postponement since there are no current moves in government to amend Aippa.

Despite its name, Aippa is not about improving access to information or protecting privacy, but about shielding the Mugabe government from scrutiny by restricting access to information held by public bodies and penalising public and media inquiry into its actions. Since its 2002 enactment, Aippa has been used to close down independent media, including all non-government radio and TV stations and all privately owned daily newspapers; arrest scores of journalists; and prevent foreign correspondents from working in Zimbabwe.

Mangwana also made a last minute demand that he be allowed to nominate three members of his own to the council, which the journalists vehemently opposed. MAZ is a coalition of Zimbabwe’s three main independent professional media organisations - namely the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, ZUJ, the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, MISA-Zimbabwe, and the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, MMPZ.

In recent months, it had appeared the government was committed to a quiet loosening of its grip on the media. Zimbabwean journalists working in the country were becoming bolder in the coverage of issues that left people thinking reforms really were on the way.

But the first sign that this was a false dawn came in December when Tafataona Mahoso, chairman of the government-controlled Media and Information Commission, MIC, announced steep accreditation fees for all journalists and prohibitive licence fees for media houses, which journalists allege were meant to close down independent media houses and snuff out all freelance journalists writing for foreign media organisations.

Tafataona, known among journalists as Mugabe’s hatchet man, is a ZANU PF loyalist who diligently administers the Orwellian Aippa to the letter. He is known to have vehemently opposed Minister Mangwana’s initial support for the independent council.

Leaders of MAZ have been lobbying parliament, Mangwana and key government for the repeal of Aippa and other repressive laws such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Broadcasting Services Act.

Mangwana’s u-turn has shocked journalists. The minister had asked them to draw up a code of conduct for journalists and a constitution for the media council. He even accused them of delay and urged them to speed up their deliberations. Several meetings and consultations were held with the minister and the important parliamentary committee on transport and communication chaired by ZANU PF parliamentary deputy Leo Mugabe, President Mugabe’s nephew, who proved an important supporter of media liberalisation.

All the indications were that Mangwana, Leo Mugabe and the parliamentary committee had accepted the establishment of a media council. However, both Mangwana and Leo Mugabe succumbed at the last minute to pressure from powerful players who remained resolutely opposed to the reform.

The opposition was led by George Charamba, the top civil servant in the information ministry, who always expresses the views of President Mugabe and is one of the few government officials who meets the head of state and government on a regular basis.

Speculation on the day of the aborted launch was that Mangwana must have been summoned by the president or had maybe been warned through Charamba to withdraw his support for the initiative.

Pressure had mounted on the ZUJ with Mangwana, Charamba and Leo Mugabe each faxing several letters to its office three days before the planned launch advising the organisation to pull out. Silent threats in the letters and telephone calls to ZUJ president Matthew Takaona persuaded him to postpone the launch for another 30 days. He suffered for that decision when angry scribes at the Quill Club, the press club in Harare, called him a sell-out and accused him of making a decision without consulting his members.

On the originally scheduled launch day, more than 250 journalists, representatives of civil society and diplomats gathered defiantly and agreed to set up a steering committee to polish the media council constitution and code of conduct which were presented at the meeting. The committee was given 30 days until the end of February, after which the launch would go ahead with or without government approval.

To everyone’s surprise, Leo Mugabe turned up. But he made it clear that he had only come on the understanding that the journalists and their supporters had agreed not to launch the media council. “I am still of the view that our effort should be in amending Aippa and not in contradicting [it],” he said. He warned the journalists that their proposed council would not last three months with government and parliamentary support.

Sweden’s ambassador to Zimbabwe Sten Rylander told the meeting that Aippa’s provisions have become a symbol of all that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe.

The government’s latest tactic is to cause divisions within the MAZ by saying it will only negotiate with it if it expels one of its components, the Zimbabwe chapter of the Namibia-based Media Institute of Southern Africa. The government is particularly

suspicious of MISA-Zimbabwe, which is foreign-funded and seen as an anti-government organisation.

But MAZ journalists have angrily warned Takaona that “we refuse to be intimidated by the government and anyone in leadership who feels that we should not go ahead [with the independent media commission] should step down, because we are going ahead after the 30 day window period”.

Florence Gobo is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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