Media Restrictions in Zimbabwe: The Path to Free and Fair Access

Since achieving independence from colonial powers, African nations have struggled to develop effective governmental institutions that serve the needs of their people, rather than the whims of tyrannical, power-driven individuals. Over the past few decades, improvements in governance have occurred in many African nations, particularly in West Africa. However, several countries still suffer from an over dominant executive, one which seeks to control and marginalize other branches of government. Left with few outlets for justice and little access and control over government activities, populations have become increasingly reliant upon national and local media to keep their governments ‘honest’. The media’s importance in exposing government corruption and other misdeeds, keeping populations informed and serving as a voice for the oftentimes oppressed cannot be understated, particularly during times of civil and political strife .

Nowhere is the need for an independent and free media needed in Africa than in Zimbabwe, which after almost thirty years under the Mugabe dictatorship, may finally see tangible political reforms—if only under the thinly veiled guise of democracy. Since 2002, Mugabe has implemented a veritable shutdown of the media, ensuring total control over the flow of information, particularly during the 2008 elections when Mugabe and his Zanu-PF supporters carried out a violent campaign to oppress opposition party members and supporters. After a power-sharing deal was achieved in 2008 between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Tsvangirai’s MDC party—a dangerous precedent for African governance in and of itself—both parties were tasked with working together to implement real reforms in order to gain legitimacy and to eventually have sanctions by the EU and the US partially lifted. Greater media freedom and access was one of the new power-sharing government’s guarantees. However, impediments to such freedom still exist, one of which being the failure of the government to establish an independent and impartial Media Commission.

The problem that thus exists is that new privately-owned media organizations cannot obtain a license to operate without approval from the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), which has yet to be established, although board appointees have been made. In October 2009, Zimbabwe Minister of Information George Charamba had announced that the ZMC would only be officially established when all other proposed commissions (Human Rights, Anti-Corruption and Electoral Commissions) were ready to be formed. Furthermore, the government’s other media bodies (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust), which regulate the vast state-owned media enterprise, continue to be controlled by Mugabe and the Zanu-PF. It has been reported that Mugabe recently made appointments of former military officials and spies to the boards of these media bodies, an apparent step to once again stymie impartiality and maintain significant media control. Another problem is that although the new ZMC is mandated by law to ensure greater media freedom, it will still be subject to the same laws and institutions that have worked to repress these freedoms in the past, particularly the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). In addition, it doesn’t remove the influence of government over state-owned media and the information broadcast by such entities.

Under Mugabe’s reign, Zimbabwe’s civil institutions have always remained under threat of government reprisal; this includes the media, which has been predominantly government controlled since the establishment of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) in 1980. The ZBC currently operates the country’s only television and radio stations, under the umbrella of the also state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH). During the 1990’s, however, Zimbabwe saw the expansion of its private media industry, which for the first time, provided the public an alternative to the government’s official take. Mugabe’s tolerance of more open media was short-lived however, as public discontent with his government and support for opposition parties, particularly the MDC began to grow. In 2001, with elections due within the year, Mugabe and the Zanu-PF began an oppressive campaign to silence the opposition; this included ensuring it had no voice within the media.

Mugabe’s crackdown on the media, beginning in 2001, was nothing short of draconian. In 2001, the Zanu-PF majority government passed the Broadcasting Services Act, which essentially prohibited the licensing of any other TV broadcasting agency by the ZBC. In practical terms, this meant that Joy TV, the only other television station in Zimbabwe, would lose its broadcasting license (Joy TV, a private television station, had initially leased its broadcast license from ZBC). Joy TV had been targeted by Mugabe’s regime for some time, as its popularity had grown and began to threaten the monopoly of ZBC. Joy TV was the only channel through which viewers could watch independent international news, the half-hour BBC world news. In fact, shortly before Joy TV was ordered off air in 2002, it had been instructed by the government to stop broadcasting BBC news.

The most significant blow to media freedom also came in 2002 with the passing of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), a misnomer at best. The act established the Media and Information Commission (MIC), which was now given sole authority to grant or deny operating licenses to media outlets. All media organizations and journalists were now required to apply for a one-year renewable license in order to operate. In addition, under the AIPPA, all journalists had to be Zimbabwean citizens and foreign correspondents would only be permitted to cover special events. Perhaps most significant, the new law now gave the government authority to shut down any organization, or arrest and charge any journalist, if arbitrarily found to have written libelous reports. The establishment of the AIPPA, largely criticized both domestically and internationally, led to the shut down of several privately owned newspapers, all critical of Mugabe; these included the Daily News, The Weekly Times and the Tribune. In addition, the Financial Gazette, Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror were essentially taken over by the government, when the papers were forcibly sold to the government intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO). Furthermore, many journalists, who courageously continued to operate in such a volatile and dangerous environment, were arrested and charged with committing ‘libelous acts’, while others, such as Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard newspaper publisher, Trevor Ncube, saw their Zimbabwean citizenship challenged, in an attempt by the government to have more independent newspapers shut down.

To make matters worse, Mugabe’s government passed two more oppressive laws in 2002: the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the General Laws Amendment Act. POSA assigned unprecedented powers to the police in arresting anyone caught undermining the authority of the president, engendering hostility towards him or making abusive, obscene or false statements against him. The law gave authorities even greater latitude to arrest journalists and opposition leaders, who now risked jail or being beaten or tortured for speaking out against the president. Then, the General Laws Amendment Act amended the country’s Electoral Act, placing significant obstacles in the way of those registering to vote and significantly diminishing the role and reach of foreign and other independent monitors. This left the public and the press with even less protection during elections in 2002 and in 2008, during which Mugabe, security forces and pro-Zanu-Pf mobs unleashed a torrent of violence against the opposition.

 ?With the signing of the power-sharing deal in 2008, both parties were now tasked with ensuring a more open and freer media, but almost two years into the deal, there seems to be little palpable progress. Mugabe still controls appointments of the boards of the ZBC and all state-controlled newspapers; journalists continue to be arrested for reporting stories critical of government and police action, and new newspapers cannot launch because the ZMC has yet to be officially formed, another delay tactic on the part of Mugabe’s government. Interestingly, a new pro-Mugabe newspaper, H-Metro, which obtained its license from the now defunct MIC, well over six months ago, was able to launch recently. However, the law states that MIC licenses are no longer good if not used within six months, further evidence that circumstances continued to favor pro-Zanu-Pf media. With appointees already approved by all parties involved, there is no legitimate reason for the delay in establishing the ZMC. Hence, the ZMC should be immediately established. The Commission should be permitted to operate without influence by any one political party, but should act with impartiality, particularly when approving licenses for new media organizations as well as those shut down during past media crackdowns by the Mugabe government.

Now although obtaining an operating license is a necessary first step for the media to currently function, it alone cannot guarantee free and fair media access in the current political and legal environment. The influence of the government over various media boards, including the ZMMT, and the array of laws that provide government unqualified authority to arbitrarily arrest journalists, continue to undermine real media reform. The entire government-media system, which is quite intricate, is designed to ensure that Mugabe’s government retains control over a restricted media environment. Therefore, true reform will only come with a complete overhaul of the system, starting with the dismantling of the ZMMT, whose original purpose was to ensure an impartial media, but has effectively become the head of a propaganda machine for the government. No government should have majority stake in its country’s media; therefore, the government should sell the bulk of its media holdings, with each of the sales approved by an impartial and independent commission. This would free the boards of most media entities from government control and would allow for greater media expansion, particularly television and radio, which have suffered the most restriction.

Also critical to creating an environment that protects and values its media, is the repeal of the AIPPA, which has already been ruled by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR) as being contrary to the values upheld by the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to which Zimbabwe is a signatory. Also significant, the ACHPR found compulsory licensing or accreditation of media organizations and journalists itself to be a restriction upon freedom of press and expression, so the legality of the ZMC and its authority to grant licenses has also been placed into question. In addition to a repeal of the AIPPA, the government should the Broadcasting Services Act, which places even greater restrictions upon the media and its ability to operate without government control. For instance, it states, rather ridiculously, that no individual shall own more than a 10 percent of a radio station. Another extremely oppressive law that must be repealed is POSA, which essentially serves as the base of this restrictive media regime. The act, which serves no legitimate purpose, has been used by police and government security forces to excessively curtail freedom of association, assembly, speech and expression. Although POSA is currently under review, the proposed amendment does little to erode the unconstitutional character of the act. Total repeal is the only guarantee that the government and police will not have justification to continue to act capriciously.

An assessment of the current government-media system in Zimbabwe reveals the difficulties with creating an environment that allows for greater media access and freedom. A free and fair media is essential however to ensuring the country’s democratic processes are also free and fair and that all parties are held accountable or their actions. To establish an open media, one free from government control, the separation of government powers, among the executive, legislature and judiciary, must be clearly delineated and upheld at all costs. In countries where the ruling government also has the legislative majority, it is through the judiciary that freedoms must be protected. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done, as strong and abusive executives rarely uphold the decisions of a weak judiciary. However, as is the case in Zimbabwe, continued international and regional pressure, as well as pressure from NGOs, human rights groups and domestic organizations, can influence governments, particularly when economic interests are being threatened. Therefore, it is imperative that the international community and regional powers persist with their demands for real reform in Zimbabwe, reform that promotes and protects a vigorous and open media.