4 May 2012

Zimbabwe: Genuine Press Freedom - Not in Mugabe's Backyard


Despite being hailed as a "liberator" in 1980, Robert Mugabe was named by the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders as one of Africa's 7 worst press freedom predators in 2011. Little, if any has changed since then.

Admittedly, the registration of 30 or so 'independent' publications was a move in the right direction. However, the controversial licensing of 2 commercial radio stations has been criticised for "keeping Mugabe's critics out of the race".

Furthermore, journalists and street vendors continue to be subjected to harassment, intimidation and violence by the regime's agents, while threats of lawsuits for criminal defamation have been blamed for the dearth of investigative journalism.

Zimbabwe is inevitably undergoing a political transition albeit characterised by many false starts and even back pedalling. A typical case is that of the opening of the airwaves.

As noted by Professor Eldred Masunungure, 'a political transition is about regime change or regime transformation' (Zimbabwe's Power Sharing Agreement, paper prepared for a workshop on 'The Consequences of Political Inclusion in Africa', April 24-25, 2009, American University, Washington D.C. p4).

Critics argue that 'not everyone is on board' on the transformation agenda as there is stiff resistance to key media reforms by some hardliners.

It is this paper's contention that the Mugabe regime is 'driving with the hand-brake on' as far as press freedom, the opening of the airwaves and freedom of expression are concerned.

The basis for that argument is the retention of 'revenge laws' like AIPPA and colonial criminal defamation laws, the reluctance to reconstitute the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) and the ongoing running battles with civil society.

For instance, police disrupted a road show organised by a Bulawayo-based community radio initiative, Radio Dialogue during the recent Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) suggesting lack of clear policy by the inclusive government.

According to reports, police in riot gear called off the road show, four hours after it had started, claiming there was not enough space for holding the activity. Earlier in March, Police refused to grant Radio Dialogue clearance for a free-the-airwaves procession.

In 2010, Police and the CIO allegedly confiscated donated shortwave radio sets from villagers in Murehwa and Bikita west in an effort to deny them access to balanced foreign news broadcasts.

However, despite condemning foreign based independent media as 'pirate radio stations', the regime's loyalists' ironically feature in interviews.

It is ironic and very sad that the former champions of the fight for press freedom and a new world information order have now turned to be oppressors 32 years later.

Zimbabwe's coalition government continues to pull in opposite directions on the issue of media freedom although enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights - well before some of the ministers were born!

By resisting press freedom 'in his back yard' Robert Mugabe is only giving more ammunition to his critics, a move that is unsustainable in transnational relations.

Clifford Chitupa Mashiri is a Political Analyst in London.

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