opinionBy Pedzisai Ruhanya
GOVERNMENT, through the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), has created the Zimbabwe Media Council, a statutory regulatory body which seeks to establish a code of conduct and ethics for journalists in order to serve the interests of power rather than the democratic role of the media.
The core of this proposal is not to protect and promote the democratic practice of journalism, especially if one looks at the powers of the Zimbabwe Media Commission as provided for under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) where journalists could be cautioned, suspended, deleted from the roll of journalists and referred for prosecution in cases of breaches of the code, among other punitive measures.
The code is being proposed in circumstances where the history against the democratic practice of journalism in Zimbabwe is littered with numerous cases of media stifling and muzzling by the state in order to impede its key role of making public and private corporate institutions and their leaders accountable.
However, the problems of statutory regulation do not mean the alternative, which is the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) offers the best practice. The setting up of VMCZ suggests no regulation at all. It purports to be self-regulatory yet quite a number of its constituencies are not journalists. At best it is co-regulation. There is also a misguided appreciation of statutory regulation in this group to connote state interference when numerous examples both locally and abroad show a professional body can be statutory, but still remains autonomous of the state.
One fundamental area in the self-regulation of the media that should be captured is the public interest role of the media. In attempting to regulate the media, a distinction should be drawn between regulating media content which is unacceptable in plural and democratic societies and regulating media processes which could be desirable and acceptable as a means of ensuring transparency for the audiences as well as accountability of the powerful.
The ZMC is interested in regulating content, which is undemocratic and outrageous. Regulating the process by which fairness, accuracy, respect for privacy and redress for journalistic malpractices are properly implemented by the press need not be a constraint on the media's freedom to publish.
This is what VMCZ entails but lacks an independent statutory enforcement, but much better than ZMC. The government proposal is therefore mala fide (done in bad faith or malicious in intent) in terms of safeguarding the public and journalistic interests. It serves the interests of power, yet the media is supposed to make politicians accountable to the public.
As part of this idea, the concept of protecting and promoting journalism "in the public interest", is a framework which should be determined by parliament not under the framework of ZMC. This framework should not be prescriptive and like all laws, would inevitably require interpretation and refinement through the courts.
The critical issue which the ZMC, through Aippa, misses by a wide margin is that the framework should enshrine the fundamental importance of journalism's watchdog role, and could therefore serve to liberate rather than restrict the very idea which proponents for self-regulation suggest would be endangered.
An independent statutory body must safeguard the absolute right to publication in the case of exposing wrongdoing, injustice or incompetence among the private or public officials in positions of responsibility, and revealing information which fulfils a democratic role in advancing a better understanding of important issues or assists the public to come to electoral or other decisions of crucial importance.
These issues are omitted by the ZMC because it critically aims to control the media content -- not process -- to serve the interests of the political elite, the interests of power.
The ZMC is the worst body we can have. However, the VMCZ is not a perfect alternative.
Given the failure of like-minded self-regulatory or co-regulatory bodies such as the United Kingdom's Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal that is currently under inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson, VMCZ should move to have a statutory-backed regulator with a broader cross-section of media stakeholders and enhanced powers to advance the practice of journalism and not criminalise the same as the ZMC seeks to do.
The VMCZ should be statutory, but independent where direct government involvement is only necessary and minimal. It should be independent of the government and publishers as well for it to be effective.
Under current discussions in the UK to remodel the PCC in the wake of Hackgate, it has been argued that if media self or co-regulated, bodies such as the VMCZ may herald a new age of good journalistic standards; publications themselves will be required to adopt robust internal accountability systems, policed by a new regulator to make sure they are effective and meet minimum ethical standards set up by the professionals themselves, not a government body that seeks to promote the interests of the political elite or by publishers who seek to promote their corporate financial interests.
Taking the PCC as an example, one can draw the lesson that self-regulation, though critical and at the heart of regulating the media, will not work alone.
From the phone-hacking revelations by Rupert Murdoch's News International Corporation and the manifest failure of the PCC to deal with journalistic malpractices, there is need for Zimbabwean journalists to scrutinise and revisit self-regulation which currently is not statutory. There is also need to appreciate that not everything that is legal has inherent state interference.
As suggested by Steven Barnett, a media scholar, after interrogating the failures of the PCC, it is critical and necessary to introduce a backstop body given powers by parliament that provides regulation with real teeth and creates proper accountability of the media to society and the public, not to serve the interests of political and corporate power.
Without such a body, and only using the VMCZ framework for those who abhor government interference, it will not be possible to levy fines or to ensure that an ombudsman is genuinely independent from the industry.
Barnett argued that in order to gain public confidence in the case of the PCC following the phone-hacking scandal and to ensure that the powerful corporate interests are not allowed to dictate the terms of regulation, such reserve statutory powers are essential.
The point being made is that a self-regulatory media body must not only protect its members from state power, but also corporate power and interference, as well as donor power, something that the VMCZ should take note of. ZMC is out.
Ruhanya is a PhD candidate at Communication and Media Research Institute, University of Westminster, London.