Opinion: Harare spring fizzles out

HARARE, Zimbabwe — It all looked so hopeful a year ago.

It seemed Zimbabwe's power-sharing government would bring significant liberalization of the restrictive media regulations.

The new government, meeting with journalists at the lake resort of Kariba in May, agreed that the hated press law, AIPPA — the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act — would be repealed and a more friendly media environment established in keeping with the September 2008 agreement between the main political parties and the subsequent formation of a government of national unity.

Media and Information Minister Webster Shamu reached out to journalists at a series of meetings last year and assured them government was addressing the issue of reform. There would be no obstacle to the return of Zimbabwean broadcasters in the diaspora or the issue of licenses to new media houses, he privately assured them.

Meanwhile, CNN and the BBC were given permission to set up bureaus in Harare after a long absence.

But the “Harare Spring” ended in disappointment. The tenor of the state media became increasingly hostile toward Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai who was prime minister in the new government. And nothing more was heard of licenses as the hardliners around President Robert Mugabe rejected any suggestion of reform. Denied access to the official media, the MDC was obliged to resort to handing out samidzats to get its policies across to a public hungry for news.

There would be no progress in the inter-party talks, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF central committee said, so long as what they called “pirate” stations continued to broadcast to Zimbabwe from their studios in Britain, the Netherlands and the United States.

A Zimbabwe Media Commission, responsible for issuing licenses, has now been established but it remains to be seen how much freedom it enjoys. Privately-owned media houses such as Trevor Ncube’s Alpha Media Holdings, which publishes the Zimbabwe Independent and Standard newspapers, have been forced to cool their heels for the best part of a year at huge cost to investors while Mugabe plays a waiting game.

“Every time somebody passes him the ball he runs with it for a while but then kicks it back into touch,” says veteran A.P. correspondent Angus Shaw, using a rugby reference.

One of the reasons European Union sanctions were renewed last month was Mugabe’s refusal to make progress in implementing the 2008 political agreement. All observers are now watching the Zimbabwe Media Commission for some sign of change.

But there has been no change in the fawning attitude of Mugabe’s mouthpieces. On the occasion of his 86th birthday last weekend the Manica Post in a front-page hagiographical article described the president as “an object of cynosure held in both veneration and reverence among other African leaders.” Mugabe is as constant as the North Star, readers were told, and would not be “bullied into submission by an incessant Western barrage.”

More disturbing was the return to Mugabe’s fold of former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo who presided over the closure of independent newspapers and the arrest of journalists in 2003-2004 before being expelled from Zanu-PF in 2005 for standing as an independent parliamentary candidate.

The Zimbabwean’s editor Wilf Mbanga claims Moyo has recently made a number of threats which have led to the arrest of the newspaper’s distributors. They are being charged with “falsehoods prejudicial to the state.”

This followed a story in The Zimbabwean claiming Moyo had met with other top Zanu-PF officials to discuss the formation of a new splinter group. Moyo has strongly denied any such episode.

“The tactic of harassment, arrest and charges in connection with publication in newspapers,” Mbanga wrote, “is reminiscent of the days when Jonathan Moyo was Minister of Information and regularly made complaints to the police culminating in the arrest and charging of many journalists on allegations of publishing false statements."

Media Institute of Southern Africa Director Nhlanhla Ngwenya said the incident betrayed the government’s lack of commitment to media reform.

“The whole incident exposes the fallacy of media reform rhetoric,” Ngwenya said.

The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, which has not issued a single licence since its formation 10 years ago, took out an advert in the state media last weekend to congratulate Mugabe on his 86th birthday.

The state press quoted visiting U.S. Congressional delegation leader Gregory Meeks as describing Mugabe as “a great man” after meeting him at State House, the president's official residence in Harare. The press did not mention how Meeks described Prime Minister Tsvangirai.

 Meanwhile, the only voice heard across the land remains that of the incumbent who does not describe any plans to extract the country from the hole he has dug for it.