Is it possible to have democracy without a free media?
Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe clearly thinks so. He has been blocking media reform since a power-sharing government took office in February.
A conference scheduled to chart the way forward for the media, particularly regarding new legislation, was postponed at the last minute after Mugabe’s officials intervened.
The conference had been organized by deputy information minister Jameson Timba, a member of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, who claimed it had been cleared by information minister Webster Shamu, a Mugabe loyalist. But officials in Mugabe’s office made it clear to Shamu that discussion of legislative changes would be unwelcome at this time.
Zimbabwe has some of the most repressive media laws in the world. Most egregious is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) which, until recently, provided for a regulatory commission, appointed by government, to license media houses and journalists.
Despite the abolition of the commission in an Aippa amendment early last year, it continues to pocket large sums from media workers and acts as a supervisory body denying licenses to newspapers.
The Daily News in 2003 was a notable victim of its malevolence. In a few short years, the privately owned paper became the most popular daily in Zimbabwe for its exposes of corruption and state torture. Its circulation exceeded that of the government-owned Herald, which was probably its main offense. Its printing presses were destroyed by massive bombs, its offices hit by a grenade, its editors and journalists beaten by Mugabe's thugs. The Daily News still continued to publish. But the government used its laws to close down the paper for not having proper accreditation. Dozens of journalists were laid off when the paper was denied a license because it had applied to the courts against the need to have one.
The government media commission also plays a disciplinary role. When the editor of an independent publication published a letter from a reader comparing Zimbabweans to a herd of wildebeest that watched while predators picked off their numbers one by one, he received a letter from the chairman accusing him of portraying Zimbabweans as docile animals.
In last year’s election, the commission sent the electoral authorities a list of journalists who, it directed, should not be permitted to cover voting. Several foreign correspondents were arrested and locked up during the poll for working without accreditation.
Legislation passed early last year provides for a new media commission which will only assume its duties when parliament, with its MDC majority, enacts enabling measures. Journalists are mostly opposed to any form of statutory regulation, preferring a voluntary body. But Mugabe is reluctant to let go, at this delicate stage, of the levers of presidential control. This almost certainly explains why the media conference was called off.
Meanwhile, the government-owned papers have been denouncing U.S. President Barack Obama for renewing U.S. sanctions. Calls from MDC ministers to lift the sanctions, which mostly cover loans and balance of payments support, have complicated the picture.
The MDC knows it will fail if it can’t get Zimbabwe's economy working again. That will require reengagement with major lenders such as the United States, European Union and International Monetary Fund. They have all made it clear there has to be more evidence of reform before they can release their purse strings.
But Tsvangirai is becoming impatient.
“Zimbabweans should not have to pay a further price for their determination to stand by their democratic ideals because the new government does not meet or match the ‘clean slate’ or ‘total victory’ standards expected by the West,” he wrote this week in a newspaper article. “This new government is not perfect, but it does represent all Zimbabweans — it is positive, it is peaceful, it is committed to a new constitution and free and fair elections and, with international support, it will succeed.”
The problem here is that Mugabe's old-guard elements are doing their best to make sure the new government doesn’t succeed. Political prisoners are still being held in appalling conditions, farms invaded by Mugabe supporters and their owners threatened while the police stand by and watch. Meanwhile the government media continues to denounce the West in vitriolic terms. The country’s one TV station acts as a cheerleader for Mugabe while permitting the new ministers an occasional mention.
Mugabe is refusing to swear-in one of them, Roy Bennett, because, the president says, he is facing “serious charges.” In fact, they have been concocted by the state.
Mugabe agreed with the MDC to promote “fair and balanced” media coverage when he signed the unity agreement in September last year. There has been little evidence of that in recent weeks. And without media reform the public will continue to receive one version of events that suits Mugabe’s regime. That in turn means that when a new constitution is submitted for approval in a referendum next year the public will be unable to make an informed choice.
That will suit Mugabe as well.
The lack of real media reform as well as the lack of the rule of law remain major obstacles to the success of the power-sharing government. The Zimbabwean public is eager for a free press. The U.S. and other Western powers also regard an unfettered media as a key test for whether or not Zimbabwe should get new aid. Morgan Tsvangirai and his partners in the new government have many battles to fight against Mugabe and his cronies, but the struggle for a free press is one of the most crucial.
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Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct a typographical error.