Joram Nyathi Group Political Editor
TOMORROW is World Press Freedom day. A few journalists and editors in Zimbabwe are in the dock for infringing various pieces of legislation related to their work. Propitiously, though, the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services has set up an independent panel of media practitioners to inquire into the state of the media in the country. The panel, Information and Media Panel of Inquiry, is on the ground as I write. Perchance, IMPI might win the battle to have the pernicious legislation expunged.
The offending legislations are aippa and posa, both of which are familiar territory to most media practitioners.
In short, aippa requires journalists to be accredited and media houses be registered with the Zimbabwe Media Commission.
My main interest for this piece is section 15 of posa.
The section deals with publishing or communicating false statements. It prohibits and criminalises the publication of a statement by a person who knows the statement to be false, or who does so but does not have reasonable grounds for believing the statement to be true.
The statement in question must be prejudicial to the state to the extent that it “promotes public disorder or endangers public safety; affects the defence or economic interests of Zimbabwe; undermines public confidence in the security forces; and disrupts essential services”.
I must concede that journalists have a point about the criminal penalty. There should be other remedies, especially for the journalists. Yet the grounds raised as prejudicial to the state are very serious.
The First Amendment to the American Constitution is often cited as a lobbying platform against any attempts to abridge press freedom. Rarely are issues of context and circumstance ever explained. One is left to speculate that there must have been so much patriotic fervour and a rare brand of journalists then that even politicians felt entirely safe in the hands of the media.
Yet uncertainty about the enemy without so abounded that the same politicians found it necessary to have a nationwide armed militia to thwart any possible British mischief. That liberal gun policy still haunts the US today.
No doubt Zimbabwe’s plural media is still nascent. Our democracy is still delicate. The enemy who lost the guerilla war is still in the trenches.
While there might be debate about “public disorder” or “essential services”, I don’t think there is similar latitude about the “defence or economic interests” of Zimbabwe. We still have political parties who call for and media who back those calls for economic sanctions on the country to achieve certain political ends.
I don’t know if that is not criminal.
I raise this point deliberately so that we separate genuine issues related to press freedom and freedom of expression from dangerous political demagoguery disguised as freedom of expression.
Calling for sanctions on your country is a form of freedom of expression which seeks to destroy the country. It hurts everybody and cannot be treated any less.
That is why the Americans have their own Patriot Act. If they didn’t, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden would be free men today.
What worries me most is not the penalty. It is more the discourse around it.
The law is essentially about exercising great responsibility by the media. It tacitly acknowledges the power and reach of the media. It acknowledges its influence on our daily lives. This is to say that influence can be used positively or negatively, with grave consequences. It’s like a motor vehicle with a full tank on the road. Yet the discourse in some media circles is to say we should be left to do as we please. It is our right; it is guaranteed in the Constitution. Even those offended who seek civil redress in the courts are accused of stifling media freedom.
One guy actually protested that freedom was being “given in instalments as if we don’t know what we are doing. Is that why people went to war?”
No doubt if every reporter or journalist knew what they were doing and were as diligent in reporting facts as facts, editors would sleep well at night. And there would be fewer apologies in the newspapers. Which is not the case now.
Freedom must come with the responsibility to respect and protect the interests and rights of fellow citizens until such a time that the same rights and interests are legally withdrawn by the courts through due process.
Recently the Speaker of the National Assembly Jacob Mudenda caused a furore in the House after he cautioned members from making wild and damaging allegations against fellow legislators and members of the public. He said members should not make allegations which they could not substantiate.
That injunction was immediately tainted with a political spin.
Some MPs protested that they were being gagged from exposing corruption.
The media took up the hyperbole. Mudenda was accused of trying to censure Parliament, to limit debate, to protect certain interests, etc.
That’s typically Zimbabwean.
The Speaker’s import was lost in the self-righteous din.
Nobody could be bothered to make a distinction between freedom of expression and the freedom to malign, freedom to expose the truth and freedom to manufacture malicious conjecture against opponents or party rivals.
Yet the Speaker’s message was simple: everybody has a reputation and a family name to defend and protect. Everybody has a right to personal dignity which cannot be soiled under parliamentary privilege.
Some of the people who were being named without cause had no platform to respond. Yet the damage caused by their being associated with perfidy could not be erased and would live in print forever, regardless whether an apology was made later.
The danger with information, correct or malicious, is that we lose control of it once it leaves our hands. It simply flies away and we have no way of calling it back before it can cause irreparable damage. It is like an angry SMS sent to the wrong person.
Once we lose control of that information it means anyone can use it the way they want. Researchers can take it as a record and quote the source, believing the sloppy source to be a credible publication. And I doubt that there is a publication which doesn’t want to be taken seriously.
We all want to be taken as a medium of record; why don’t we want to invest the necessary time and energy to protect our integrity?
Prevention is better than cure. And the Speaker rightly stood his ground because he was standing on a sound principle.
My point at the end of it all is that rarely is a law passed which is purposelessly malicious because it will inevitably fail in the courts.
Which is to say, generally journalists who are responsible, do a diligent day’s work and check their facts and have empathy, rarely fear a law simply because it threatens a jail term.
That probably explains why beside generalised calls for media and security sector reforms by the MDC formations, there was never a concerted effort during the subsistence of the Inclusive Government to press for the repeal of Aippa or Posa — Gonese’s feeble private Member’s Bill aside.
Here I am stressing issues of accuracy and empathy so that we all imagine ourselves at the receiving end of inaccurate or malicious reporting. Would we justify it because it is freedom of expression?
Press Freedom Day today comes when Zimbabwe has a number of publications to choose from and stakes are higher on accuracy, credibility, balance and fair play.
Perhaps very soon we shall have more TV and radio stations, making even greater demands on our talents and principles.
Even the imploding MDC-T demands fair coverage on its deathbed.