7 November 2012

Zimbabwe: Will President Mugabe Walk the Talk?

PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe's plea at the opening of Parliament last week that government and the media must work together has sparked renewed optimism that a libertarian media system could be looming ahead of polls but media watchdogs are apprehensive about his surprise offer.

In a shift from ZANU-PF's traditional vitriol against the private press, President Mugabe extended a rare plea to open a fresh page of cooperation with the media, particularly those with divergent views from those of the state.

"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 all shun violence in all its manifestations and latent forms, especially as we look forward to our national elections," he said.

Ironically, during the same week that he preached tolerance, police were threatening to launch fresh arrests of journalists.

The threats have helped push journalists' pessimism against the President's olive branch even higher, particularly in a private press that has witnessed deteriorating relations between the State and scribes amid a wave of arrests, detentions, threats and intimidation for questioning excesses and opulence in high offices in a sea of extreme poverty.

Given these experiences, it has been difficult for journalists to believe whether the ZANU-PF side of government was willing to drop its tough stance to embrace divergent views critical for building democratic societies.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe said while it welcomed the seeming shift in President Mugabe's stance against the private media, it was high time he walked the talk on media freedom and freedom of expression.

"The President should walk the talk," said Nhlanhla Ngwenya, MISA-Zimbabwe national director.

"We have made appeals to government to repeal or amend draconian media laws but our pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears. What is needed is a conducive environment for the media in Zimbabwe not what we have right now," said Ngwenya.

It is not difficult to understand why media activists are sceptical about President Mugabe's overtures to the private press.

In the past decade, animosity against journalists and pro-democracy activists engulfed Zimbabwe.

The resentment reached tipping point during the bloody 2008 polls when government launched its harshest crackdown on the media in three decades.

Armed with draconian laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Public Order and Security Act and a string of other repressive pieces of legislation, government detained at least 15 journalists and intimidated their sources of information.

A New York Times correspondent, Barry Bearak was arrested and charged with "committing journalism", a "crime" police said was "something despicable".

AIPPA has been condemned worldwide as inimical to free press. AIPPA was used to shut down newspapers that provided alternative voices to State media propaganda, deny international media access to Zimbabwe and to gag the inquisitive private press from exposing corruption and mismanagement.

However, in three years government has not honoured a pledge for media reforms, which include registration of private radio and television stations.

In terms of freeing the airwaves, many argue that the ground has not shifted since 2009 when the reforms were promised.

State monopoly on television remains while the two new radio stations are seen aligned to ZANU-PF, charges refuted by their owners who claim they are independent from any political interference.

But the push towards open, transparent and accountable societies has never been as pronounced as today, and closed states like Zimbabwe are under tremendous pressure to reform.

The development of a liberal, aggressive, press is central to this transformation.

It was critical, analysts argue, that overdue media reforms be implemented immediately, to complement the President's call.

Intimidation of journalists from the private press has continued with this week's arrest of a journalist with an independent daily newspaper.

Reporters from privately run newspapers still endure the agony and embarrassment of being denied entry into State functions.

In public offices, the frequent question confronting journalists from secretaries taking calls is; "pepa renyu nderemusangano here?" (Is your newspaper pro-ZANU-PF?).

This is the strategy ministries controlled by ZANU-PF are using to determine the quality and quantity of public information, if at all, a journalist deserves.

Zimbabwe is indeed in the grip of secrecy.

Even established business people linked to the ruling elite feel they are immune from media scrutiny.

They threaten journalists for exposing abuse of shareholder funds in public companies.

State media is generally spared.

The spread and extent of issues President Mugabe must tackle to level the playing field for the media is huge but it requires full political commitment, analysts say.

It is important to understand that President Mugabe's promise to embrace the media was made in the context of the upcoming elections, they add.

The assumption here is that he is taking the first steps towards building strong and independent democratic institutions that would offer protection of basic rights and create space for participative governance in which the private media will take its rightful position.

A robust and independent media, judiciary and separation of powers, an independent central bank, strong trade unions, a dynamic private sector and vibrant civic organisations are all central to this process.

Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary general, Foster Dongozi, said he remained sceptical.

"In the same week that the President said this, we heard police spokesperson, Oliver Mandipaka saying the police would not hesitate to arrest journalists," said Dongozi.

"The President is a difficult character to unpack (but) his statement means we can work together as Zimbabweans without criminalising each other. Remember journalists follow the story but the tone is set by the politicians. While I think the President may be well meaning, there are others below and around him who are smearing the image of Zimbabwe," Dongozi stressed.

Copyright © 2012 Financial Gazette. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.