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Suitable media regulation for Zimbabwe: statutory or voluntary?

The Zimbabwe Media Commission recently launched the Zimbabwe Media Council which is expected among other ‘professional’ duties to monitor media conduct, a move that has angered independent media groups raising concern on whether the political parties in the inclusive government are sincere in calling for media reforms as they is already an existing press council body.

The new media council was created in line with the requirements section 42A of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). AIPPA has since inception been described by human rights activists as a ‘draconian’ piece of legislation meant to muzzle the media.

Media professionals are arguing that there is already in existence their own institution, the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe create for the purposes of advancing self-regulation necessitating no need for government interference. Pedzisai Ruhanya, a PhD candidate at the Communication and Media Research Institute at the University of Westminster in London, in a report published by the Zimbabwe Independent, says the establishment of such a council is aimed at serving the interests of power rather than the democratic role of the media.

“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,” Ruhanya says.

The media situation particularly the concept of self-regulation in Zimbabwe is far from what is happening in developed countries. Cornelia Hass, the director of the German Journalists’ Union and a member of the press council, says governments should never be allowed a place in controlling the media.

“The freedom of the press is part of our constitutional right and government has no right to influence self-regulation of the press, there should not be any media laws which cut down the freedom of the press. It is part of our constitutional right to form a self-regulatory body, to develop rules and to work together with publishers, that is very important for our system,” she said.

Hass revealed that German journalists in the early 1960s refused to recognize government efforts to implement new media laws as they felt it was likely to negatively affect media freedom.

“We do it ourselves, we set up our own regulatory system, our own rules and we decide how these rules look like and how they are implemented.”

The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) in a statement released prior to the Zimbabwe Media Council launch described the move to establish the statutory council as undemocratic. Takura Zhangazha, VMCZ executive director believes the inclusive government is not doing enough to reform the media.

“The government has generally undertaken an incremental and largely quantitative approach to reforming the media in Zimbabwe. The democratic and qualitative aspect of it has been left out primarily due to the fact that government has not decriminalized freedom of expression and has not repealed repressive legislations that curtail media freedom,” said Zhangazha.

VMCZ was launched in 2007 on the premise that it was the best democratic practise to formalize self-regulation for the media. This was largely influenced on the backdrop of government’s regulatory body, the then Media and Information Commission enabled by AIPPA.

Zhangazha says compared to other countries, the Zimbabwe government has demonstrated minimal commitment to implementing freedom of expression and access to information in the best democratic interests of the country.

“It has sought to present freedom of expression as a privilege and not a right, a development that is undemocratic in principle and in practice.”

The Media Monitoring Project in Zimbabwe (MMPZ) is like the German Journalists’ Union convinced that governments have no role to play in controlling the media and its activities and on deciding codes of conduct beyond an administrative role. MMPZ says the presence of the VMCZ, to adjudicate and resolve disputes relating to unprofessional conduct by media personnel is adequate.

The VMCZ has however come under attack by a section of activists and the Zimbabwe Media Commission for lacking enough powers to tackle self –regulation. Ruhanya says the VMCZ has simply adopted a co-regulation approach as he claims most of its constituents are not journalists.

“However, the problems of statutory regulation do not mean the alternative, which is the VMCZ, offers the best practice. There is also 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 remain autonomous of the state,” Ruhanya said.

Matthew Takaona, one of the ZMC commissioners says Zimbabwe is not yet ready for self-regulation hinting that the presence of the VMCZ for the past five years has not created any changes in the unprofessional conduct by the media.

“At the moment when we look at the media environment, we are in transition mode, so it is not possible to practice voluntary regulation without first applying a system of statutory regulation,” Takaona says.

The reason why the statutory council was put in place is because, as a commission we were receiving numerous complaints from politicians particularly parliamentarians who believe voluntary regulation has not been effective enough in addressing media misconduct. We are all clamouring for self-regulation but we are not yet ready.”

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