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Press Freedom Day Statement: Media key for credible poll

May 3, 2023

The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition joins the rest of the progressive world in commemorating the 30th anniversary of the World Press Freedom Day. This year, the commemorations are running under the theme, “Shaping a future of rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights”.

On this important global day, the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiZC) reiterates the importance of media freedom in building democratic and developmental societies especially in Africa. In the case of Zimbabwe in the current year, media freedom will be key in giving the country a chance at a credible election, and curing both the 2017 coup and ridding the country of the cycle of contested electoral legitimacy which has come to define the country at least for the last two decades now.

Zimbabwe is regressing on media freedoms The current regression we see in terms of media freedoms points to what we have previously alluded to as a dangerous slide to authoritarianism by the Second Republic, which ironically came on the back of a coup in 2017, promising to rid the country of an undemocratic culture that had become pervasive under former president Mugabe.

It is worrying that for the past 2 years, Zimbabwe has recorded a significant decline in terms of freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

In 2021, the Reporters Without Borders rated Zimbabwe at number 130 out of 180 countries in terms of Press Freedom and in 2022, Zimbabwe was ranked at number 137, which clearly shows that the country continues to regress in terms of this key marker of democratic pluralism

It is also unfortunate that some sections of the private media continue to be barred from state functions while the state-controlled media enjoys preferential treatment. This is all part of a ploy to control the media content that citizens can access, a key trait of authoritarian regimes.

Yet our constitution guarantees media freedom

It is worth reiterating that the foremost document establishing the Republic of Zimbabwe, the constitution, is clear in so far as the various freedoms as they relate to the media. Sections 61 on freedom of expression and freedom of the media are clear in terms of how they are supposed to support the realisation of access to information (Section 62), which remains a key right to support Zimbabwe’s holistic development.

Access to information remains a key right that can support the realisation of all other rights. This includes access to such information as that contained in the constitution.

The Coalition is alive to the role that the constitution is supposed to play in guiding and supporting the country’s development. Indeed, all other development plans, including the National Development Strategy 1 and Vision 2030 are and must be subordinate to the constitution.

It is important that the media, both state-controlled and private, must be alive to their role of supporting access to accurate and timely information to citizens. The state-controlled media is specifically obligated in Section 61 of the constitution, to “afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions”.

Hate speech is a precursor to state-sponsored violence and genocide

Sadly, we have continued to see the state-controlled media working as a propaganda mouthpiece to further the interests of a few elites in ZANU PF. These elites get unfettered airplay and are allowed to spew hate speech against opposition and civic society actors. The recent article in The Patriot, a ZANU PF mouthpiece, of 27 April 2023, like many of its articles, is indicative of how low the country has sunk in terms of arresting hate speech, which is a precursor to genocidal tendencies.

This we have seen not only in other jurisdictions such as Rwanda at the start of the 1994 genocide, but also back home when the same government launched the Gukurahundi genocide in the 1980s. Labelling civil society organisations as ‘rogue’ and ‘regime change kingpins’, and human rights defenders as ‘nuisances’ is a long-known strategy of dictators of trying to deligitimise human rights activists and their work, while opening them up to victimisation and abuse by ruling party zealots.

Journalists continue to be harassed, threatened or jailed for doing their work, including exposing human rights violations, state-sanctioned corruption and plunder of national resources by political elites. The state has simply turned the media fraternity into a dangerous minefield.

On March 29, 2023, the Deputy Chief Secretary, Presidential Communications, George Charamba threatened journalists against reporting on the revelations of looting of gold through international money laundering schemes by political elites in Zimbabwe.

This follows the release of a four-part documentary by Al Jazeera news channel which provides in depth details into how a cartel of powerful individuals and their cronies are allegedly using state institutions to loot the precious mineral while ordinary Zimbabweans continue to wallow in poverty.

It is only conceivable that Mr. Charamba’s sentiments represent the position of the office of the President of Zimbabwe and that his sentiments are part of concerted efforts to evade accountability and block the exchange of information within the general public on what is clearly a matter of national importance.

The media remains critical to support a credible electoral process Whilst we have, as many other have also done, sounded the alarm regarding the country’s preparedness for elections slated for this year, we reiterate that urgent changes to how the state-controlled broadcaster regulates access to airplay by different voices and stakeholders will be key to giving this country a chance to holding a credible electoral process.

In affirmation of the provision of the constitution’s Section 61 on freedom of expression and freedom of the media, Section 160G of the Electoral Act [Chapter 2:13] states that the “public broadcasters [read state-controlled media] shall afford all political parties and independent candidates contesting an election such free access to their broadcasting services.” Ensuring this is done does not require any structural reform.

This is affirmed in various other regional statutes that Zimbabwe is a signatory to.

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights guidelines on access to information and elections in Africa clearly states that “Media and internet regulatory bodies shall adopt regulations on media coverage during elections that ensure fair and balanced coverage of the electoral process and transparency about political advertising policy on media and online media platforms.”

The SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections obliges Member States to commit themselves “to promote necessary conditions to foster transparency, freedom of the media; access to information by all citizens; and equal opportunities for all candidates and political parties to use the state media.”

The guidelines further require member states to take reasonable measures to guarantee political parties and other electoral stakeholders, unhindered access to, and to communicate freely with, the media.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19 also highlights freedom of expression as a fundamental right, stating that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

It is therefore tragic that the State, which should be facilitating access to these rights as mentioned above, has continued to stand out as the major violator of freedom of expression and freedom of the media in Zimbabwe, and the biggest hindrance to access to information. As Zimbabwe heads towards the anticipated elections, we continue to implore the state to take a more progressive approach to its engagement with and control of the media. The state is the foremost duty bearer in terms of ensuring that freedom of expression and to the media, as well as access to information are a reality for the citizens of this great country. More importantly, we urge the state media as enshrined under Section 61 (4) of the constitution to, among other issues; “act in an impartial manner” and “afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions”.

We unreservedly support calls by different stakeholders for an improvement in the state’s openness to the media including public scrutiny. The state must take advantage of the state broadcasting infrastructure to foster a culture of government openness and transparency, which are key to the attainment of a genuine ‘social contract’ and responsible and people-centred government.

As the Coalition, we remain committed towards our efforts towards fighting for a just, democratic and economically developed Zimbabwe. We value the role that media freedom plays in this quest. We are aware of the anti-democratic tendencies of some political elites controlling the state towards stifling media freedom, trampling on the very fruits of our independence. This must and will be resisted by progressive citizens. NOT even the PVO Amendment Bill will stop this fight for a better Zimbabwe.

Obert Masaraure Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition Spokesperson +263776129336

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