Lawson Mabhena THE INTERVIEW
Today the globe marks World Press Freedom Day and Zimbabwe finds itself facing a number of questions with respect to the state of freedom to practice the profession — from the regulatory environment to the welfare and social standing of practitioners. Our Assistant News Editor Lawson Mabhena (LM) yesterday sought answers from the Secretary for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Mr Nick Mangwana, in a wide-ranging interview. Exceprts . . .
LM: What is the state of media freedom in the Second Republic?
NM: The Second Republic has seen the democratisation of the democratic space in Zimbabwe. A notable break from the old dispensation is that journalists and citizens are now free to exchange information and participate in public discourse without any persecution or prosecution. There is a free intercourse of ideas without any fear of recrimination.
Foreign media houses like the BBC are establishing bureaus in Zimbabwe, something that was anathema especially in the post land reform period of the First Republic. Every month we clear dozens of foreign journalists to come and report freely on events in Zimbabwe.
I have to say that we are also concerned that the media remains not only polarised but is also polarising in the main. There is clear efforts at both agenda setting and agenda driving rather than credibly reporting on events. That is possibly a market-driven issue stemming from a perceived need to serve a particular market niche or a need to fill an identified gap in the market.
The established media also seem to have been unready for the advent of digital communications platforms and hence very slow to adapt. They therefore try to match these new entrants in trying to get a foothold in the market through both sensationalism and fake news.
LM: There have been cases where journalists have been harassed and arrested by authorities such as police. How does this continue?
NM: The cases you refer to are incidents whereby journalists would have broken the law. It is pivotal for journalists to remember that they are not above the law. Their profession is not a shield against the natural course of justice. That said, the Ministry strives to ensure that rights of journalists are protected as guaranteed in the Constitution. Where the police has acted below the standards expected of a modern police service as well as the ambit of the Constitution, this Ministry has engaged with them and remedial action has been taken by their superiors where training needs have been identified the individuals concerned are receiving the needed support.
LM: Journalists often struggle to get information from Government departments. What are the challenges and what is Government doing to ensure transparency and timeous release of information?
NM: I am not aware of cases where journalists are struggling to access information from Government. My Ministry has an open door policy where journalists are free to engage us whenever they require assistance to get any information. The New Dispensation has introduced a new tradition where critical information such Cabinet deliberations are made public timeously. We are the communication hub of Government and it is our institutional role to provide information to the media. Those who feel they are not getting any joy from certain ministries are advised to make us the-to-go-to Ministry in the first instance. That’s our reason for existence. All ministries are now on interactive on social media platforms, providing a wealth of information which journalists can access at any given time. The New Dispensation believes in transparency and accountability and therefore it is key to share information with the media for the benefit of the voting public. Government promotes access to information.
LM: How has been your assessment of media’s interaction with Government via the post-Cabinet briefings?
NM: As a Ministry we are very pleased with the overwhelming response by the media to the post-Cabinet Brief initiative. The platform has proved to be mutually beneficial. It has demystified Cabinet deliberations and closed the divide between the country’s decision- makers and citizens.
LM: How are the proposed Zimbabwe Media Commission, Data/Information Protection, Freedom of Information and the Broadcasting Services Act Amendment Bills going to promote freedom of the press?
NM: The new Bills will facilitate and enhance access to information. They also facilitate the pluralisation of the media space. We need more players especially in broadcasting. We need investment coming into our media industry and make it a major employer. These help with that.
LM: Do we need so many Bills relating to the media?
NM: AIPPA was a conflation of issues ranging from access to information, regulation and protecting of personal information. These are disparate issues which needed disaggregating just as is modern practice in many countries. The industry itself was against this lumping together of principally unrelated issues. Then there is the issue of the Constitution instructing for laws to be in place to regulate certain issues as is the case in the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill.
LM: There have been concerns about media ownership. Are foreigners allowed to operate media in Zimbabwe?
NM: Part of the new Bills prescribe that foreigners should at most have a 20 percent share ownership in media organisations.
LM: It has been noted that journalism training in the country is largely theoretical and students struggle when they get to the newsrooms.
NM: The Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill addresses this aspect of veritable curricula offered by media training institutions through standardising journalists’ training. We also now have a Draft Media and Film Policy which we intend to circulate among stakeholders for their input. There are a number of issues identified in the IMPI Report and our thrust is to close most of the identified gaps in there.
LM: In your view, is the media in Zimbabwe playing its role in nation building?
NM: Sadly not. The media is at the centre as fuelling political polarisation in Zimbabwe by perniciously taking sides with political actors in the country. As I said earlier, there is a lot of incitement and sentiment whipping from different sections of the media. A lot of headlines actually border on “hate speech”. Our ministerial mandate includes a responsibility to engage players so as to raise the standards of reporting in the country.
LM: Journalists, like everyone, feel economic pressures and this in turn could fuel cheque-book journalism. Have you done anything to engage employers to address workers’ welfare issues?
NM: Whilst we care about the welfare of journalists, it is not the Ministry’s role to interfere in business operations of various media houses in the country. At best we can make a blanket call for employers in the media industry to cushion their workers against the prevailing economic challenges. We have also intimated to media players to consider areas cooperation so as to reduce their operational costs. There are areas where they can take advantage of economies of scale such as the purchasing of newsprint and other inputs. They can also share delivery. There is no point in having four partially empty vehicles all going to deliver newspapers in the same direction in one night when these media houses can come together and use one vehicle and serve themselves three quarters of these costs.
LM: The overall theme of Press Freedom Day (2019) is the role of media in elections and democracy. What is your take on the role of the media in Zimbabwe during last year’s harmonised elections?
NM: To larger extent, during last year’s elections the media was found wanting in its reportage as it found itself acting more like political commissars than impartial news reporters. However, the media also played a constructive role by disseminating information on Biometric Voter Registration and other election-related exercises.