31 October 2012

Zimbabwe: Private Media Under Threat

Photo: MDC
File Photo: Zimbabwean police

THERE are fears Zimbabwe's small but vibrant private media faces renewed muzzling ahead of elections President Robert Mugabe wants held in March next year after the High Court last week granted a local firm permission to sue two newspapers over a botched financial deal. Vakakora Capital approached the Harare High Court claiming that a Namibian financial institution cancelled a US$250 million loan after reading stories alleging political violence in two independent daily newspapers in May last year.

In its court papers the firm charged that the two separate stories misrepresented the actual situation on the ground, resulting in the Namibian financial institution cancelling the US$250 million transaction.

In a ruling seen as another threat to the country's media presently battling a litany of lawsuits and a severe liquidity crunch, the High Court granted Vakakora Capital permission to sue the two newspapers allegedly for financial loss.

But the ruling also comes amid concerns over the increasing use of criminal defamation against media houses and journalists.

In the wake of the latest ruling allowing the firm to sue the two newspapers, media stakeholders say what is clear is that there appears to be a general tendency now by those with monetary and financial ability to use the courts to seek to gag the media and prevent it from doing its work freely.

This latest case is seen as indicative of a patent misunderstanding of media freedom and the role of the media in reporting the news.

That the applicants sought to pass on their inability to acquire foreign direct investment for their company to media houses reflects their limited capacity to undertake their business ventures with a full contextual understanding of the fact that the media only reports things as they are and on the basis of fact.

"These business people should instead be suing the government and not the media because the latter are not responsible for the political environment, they merely report it," said Takura Zhangazha, the director of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe.

The threat comes as the local media is reeling from draconian laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Criminal Law Codification (Reform) Act, among others, activists want repealed or amended.

Pedzisai Ruhanya, a media expert and director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, said the ruling could be used to cow the media, particularly during the next crucial six months to harmonised polls envisaged to bring closure to the coalition government.

"It is one thing to sue a newspaper for writing the truth and another to win that civil suit. What the newspapers should do is to stick to nothing but the truth in their exposures of human rights violations," said Ruhanya.

He claimed that Zimbabwe is in a relatively peaceful environment because of the critical role of the media in exposing democratic transgressions by the security apparatus and their political handlers.

"Journalists should never accept to be intimidated by these threats because the moment they do that, our country will go back to the dark ages. What is happening is an indication that the private media has done a fantastic job for our democratisation process working as the critical ears and eyes of our difficult but emerging democracy," he said.

Political violence is perceived as part of Zimbabwe's political deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), particularly at the time of elections. During the 2008 bloody polls, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) claimed that more than 200 of its supporters were killed in politically motivated violence by suspected ZANU-PF supporters.

With talk of elections in March next year, civil society organisations have been reporting on the resurgence of violence.

For instance on Tuesday this week, political activists belonging to Welshman Ncube's formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were allegedly assaulted in Chitungwiza by suspected ZANU-PF supporters as they undertook a door-to-door campaign. Other incidents of political violence have recently been reported in Shangani, Mutoko and Masvingo.

The first all-stakeholders conference and the subsequent outreach programmes were mired by violence between 2009 and 2011 as ZANU-PF and MDC supporters fought running battles, giving credence to newspaper reports that political violence is part of the country's DNA.

But as the country moves towards fresh polls, President Mugabe and his nemesis Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai have been calling for political tolerance and peaceful elections.

Opening the Fifth Session of the Seventh Parliament of Zimbabwe President Mugabe said:"I wish to appeal to all our leaders, followers of our parties and other organisations and stakeholders, including the media, to adopt the pledge to work genuinely for national unity and cohesion. Let us shun violence in all its manifestations and latent forms, especially as we look forward to our national elections."

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