The new coalition government in Zimbabwe has so far failed to deliver on its promise of greater media freedom, says Stanley Kwenda
Over the past three decades, censorship has become a fact of life in Zimbabwe. But it was in 2008 that the system became firmly entrenched.
Few dared to speak out against Robert Mugabe’s rule, even at the height of the general election campaign. During that period, Zimbabweans from all walks of life learnt how to self-censor and media organisations had to sift through their reports and edit out any potentially “dangerous” information.
We all had to, and still have to, look around before saying anything about politics.
“You don’t know the person you are speaking to so I always exercise restraint,” says Frank Chikowore, a freelance journalist who has been arrested many times in recent years on a variety of bogus charges.
The Zimbabwean constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, but legislation limits these freedoms in the “interests of defence, public safety, public order, state economic interests, public morality and public health”.
Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party, who had ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since 1980, lost the 2008 election to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai’s winning margin was not enough to allow him to form a government on his own, so a run-off presidential poll was ordered. Tsvangirai was later to withdraw from the race because of the violence directed against his supporters.
When the regional Southern African Development Community stepped in to mediate the ensuing political crisis, the talks, led by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, resulted in the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA), and the formation of a hybrid government involving three of the country’s main political parties. Last October, Morgan Tsvangirai announced that the MDC was disengaging from the unity government.
Under the GPA, the new government was committed to restoring freedom of expression and to doing away with the censorship culture. But for many Zimbabweans, this was a commitment that, given the country’s history, sounded too good to be true.
Still fresh in people’s minds are the events of 2007 when, as part of a wider plan to censor and silence government critics and journalists, the government introduced a law, the Interception of Communications Act, which legalised the censorship of all communications. Its remit included emails, telephone calls, the internet and postal material.
The law, described by many critics of the government as “fascist”, was designed to contain political dissent and suppress the free flow of information. It made it mandatory, for instance, for internet service providers to install monitoring equipment at their own expense, and it gave the state security minister the power to issue warrants for interceptions. The MDC continues to argue that this piece of legislation flouts the “fundamental rights of citizens”. “We have said such laws must go and we will ensure that they are repealed because they serve no purpose in modern day democracies except to help entrench dictatorship,” says Nelson Chamisa, the MDC’s spokesperson and Zimbabwe’s minister of information, communication and technology.
But those who suffered under the old regime are still waiting for things to change under the new national unity government, which came into being in February 2009. “The only thing that has changed with the coming of the new government are the faces, otherwise the way of doing things remains the same. People still can’t freely express themselves,” says Lovemore Matombo, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
In May 2008, the police arrested Matombo and ZCTU general secretary
Wellington Chibebe for mentioning in their May Day speeches the controversial election that saw Mugabe returned to power and the ensuing violent intimidation campaign.
The two were charged with “inciting people to rise against the government and reporting falsehood about people being killed”.
Between them they have experienced the whole gamut of President Mugabe’s brutality and the fact that acts of censorship are continuing does not surprise them. Chibebe, a key ally of Prime Minister Tsvangirai, says: “The witchhunt mentality is still very much part of us, nothing is going to change until President Mugabe goes, otherwise we are wasting our time. He is like a leopard which will not change its spots just because it has seen a lion.”
Few independent media have operated in the country since independence. The Mugabe government has always kept a tight grip on the media.
State radio and television have dominated the landscape, filling airtime with propaganda supporting the ruling party and vilifying the opposition. No independent daily newspapers and private broadcast outlets operate in Zimbabwe.
Only two prominent independent weeklies continue to publish. The government does not take much notice of them as they have a circulation of about 15,000 in a country of some 13 million. Despite this, they still practise self-censorship for fear of the unknown. From time to time bullets are sent to the editors as a way of silencing them.
Most independent news coverage is provided by exiled Zimbabwean journalists who operate foreign-based websites and radio stations from London, Washington and South Africa. These exiled news organisations work with reporters on the ground in Zimbabwe. A small handful of South African newspapers are also circulated in the country. New York Times reporter Barry Bearak, who attempted to cover the Zimbabwe elections without accreditation, summarises best just how the Zimbabwean government is averse to the free flow of information: “I was being charged with the crime of committing journalism,” he says.
Even today one can be arrested for taking pictures or doing vox pops in the street. Ironically, the country’s new government promised a quick fix to all this. Parliament passed amendments to a restrictive media law to allow Zimbabwean reporters to work without accreditation and to ease entry into the country for international journalists.
But cases of media harrassment continue. “The same old tactics of intimidation aimed at silencing critics are still being used,” says the human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa. I was part of a group of journalists who challenged the continued existence of the media and information commission, the body which was used by the government to accredit journalists.
Even after a ruling by the High Court in June, which made the commission defunct, the government continued to insist on accreditation and barred me and three other journalists, Stanley Gama, Jealous Mawarire and Valentine Maponga, from covering an international conference.
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CZC) is an organisation that brings together more than 50 human, civic, social and economic rights groups, churches, women’s groups, as well as labour and student movements. It was seen by the previous Mugabe-led government as part of the so-called regime-change agenda. In its latest report on the political climate in Zimbabwe, published in September, CZC concluded that censorship is still rooted in the country’s fibre and questioned “the government’s sincerity towards media reform”. The report, entitled “Can apples be reaped from a thorn tree?”, argues that laws continue to be used as an instrument to keep a tight grip on the media. “The euphoria which characterised initial stages of the inclusive government died slowly, as hopes for media reform faded due to Zanu PF’s continued control of public media and the failure by the government to open up the media market to allow for entry of private media houses,” it stated.
Mugabe is like a leopard that will not change its spots just because it has seen a lion.
According to Takura Zhangazha, the director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe chapter: “The government has not made any progress towards the repealing of censorship laws in the country or in addressing a culture of denying people’s rights to express themselves.”
Colonial legislative relics are still in operation. Among them is the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, which bars the performance of particular works of art. There is also the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), which limits any speeches that are deemed derogatory of the president or security services. Also still in existence is the Official Secrets Act, which denies ordinary people access to information and discussions around what they perceive to have happened in government cabinet meetings.
The Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act and Posa have been used against journalists. A recent example is the arrest in May of Zimbabwe Independent newspaper editor Vincent Kahiya and news editor Constantine Chimakure for writing stories that were alleged to be false. This was despite the fact that the story they had written was based on an official court record.
Civic society organisations that disagree with the way in which the government is approaching the writing of the country’s new constitution or how it is going about instituting media reforms are being denied coverage on state media. “The problem is that the new government is dominated by Zanu PF’s censorship culture and is still headed by Mugabe who has the executive final say on what laws should be repealed or changed or returned,” says Takura Zhangazha. “The new government has more of the old than the new in it.”
Zhangazha accuses the new partners in government of not doing enough to bring about a free society. “The MDC has not quite grasped the importance of freedom of expression because it has sought to acquire more compromises than absolute reforms which can make Zimbabwe an open society.”
He added that ordinary Zimbabweans are still being denied access to information and do not know what is happening in their country: “Ordinary people are receiving partisan information because state media is giving them falsehoods, while private media is being compromised by threats of arrest and in that vein they are forced to self-censor.”
The Harare-based political analyst Thabani Moyo says Zimbabwe needs to overhaul all the institutions that are being used to silence the people before attempting any real change: “There is need for institutional surgery because institutions such as the police, army and state media are the ones which are being used to censor public sentiment. These need to be sanitised so that reforms can take root.”
For Gift Phiri, a Zimbabwean journalist who in 2007 spent time behind bars for working for the Zimbabwean newspaper, it’s the same old story. “There has been no legislative reform since the inception of the new government. The same restrictive legal instruments are being used and censorship is a reality we continue to live with. I am forced to do self-censorship because I am afraid of falling foul of the law.”
It has not all been negative, though. The government has lifted a ban on international media organisations such as the BBC, CNN, e.tv and the Guardian, among others. It has also partially dropped the requirement that journalists have to be accredited to work in the country. In addition, it is working on repealing the repressive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and replacing it with two more media-friendly laws — the Freedom of Information Act and the Media Practitioners Act — although their content is not yet known.
The government has also promised to re-open all closed newspapers and speed up the licensing of media organisations once the Zimbabwe media commission is put in place. r
Stanley Kwenda is a freelance Zimbabwean journalist. He has worked for the weekly Financial Gazette newspaper and for Informante in Namibia and Deutsche Welle in Germany. He also blogs on Zimbabwean political issues at www.tatamburatimes.blogspot.com