Zim unity deal offers media glimmer of hope

Independent Zimbabwean newspaper editor Davison Maruziva says there’s plenty of freedom of expression in Zimbabwe.

The problem is, “there is no freedom after expression”.

Maruziva will appear in court next month on charges of publishing “false statements prejudicial to the state” because of an article written by an opposition leader that appeared in his weekly, the Standard.

Under Robert Mugabe’s 28-year autocratic rule, independent voices like Maruziva’s newspaper—one of three that are not state controlled—have little space. Printing presses are regularly blown up, foreign news organisations banned and journalists harassed, beaten and jailed.

One journalist was killed this year and scores have been arrested.

Hope for change was raised last month when Mugabe signed a power-sharing agreement with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to end Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis. But politicians deadlocked over sharing Cabinet posts have yet to turn the September agreement into reality.

The accord promises to open up the air waves, allowing “as many media houses as possible”, and calls for public media to provide “balanced and fair” coverage of all political parties.
Currently, there is only one state-run television station and no independent radio stations.

But many feel the deal did not go far enough to protect media freedoms and is unlikely to end the state’s propaganda machine.

“There is nothing to celebrate,” said Maruziva.

Media organisations are calling for the repealing of all laws that target the media, the withdrawal of charges against journalists and for the immediate granting of permission to foreign news organisations to work in the country.

“We were expecting to see something more radical,” said Takura Zhangazha, director of Zimbabwe’s chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

Zhangazha said the continued control of the state media by Mugabe’s party will not “build confidence” in the power-sharing deal.

‘Hunger for news’
Iden Wetherell, group editor of the Standard and its sister paper, the weekly Zimbabwe Independent, said there is a “hunger for news” in the country.

His papers offer criticism of Mugabe and his government not found on air or in the state-controlled Herald, the largest national daily.

The independent press also gives space to the opposition and doesn’t shy away from detailing the country’s economic decline.

“Our duty, our job is to tell it as it is. In that situation we do our best,” Wetherell said.

Running a newspaper in Zimbabwe, like running any business in a country facing an inflation rate of about 11-million percent a year, is tough. There is little advertising to rely on.

“Fewer people are able to read us because of the cost,” Wetherell said. He declined to reveal circulation figures.

The papers comply with media laws and its small staff of about 20 journalists is officially accredited. Yet the papers have been charged with numerous infractions.

The Daily News, which challenged the sweeping media laws in court and refused to register with the government, was closed down by the government in 2003. The paper boasted circulation of 800 000 and reached rural communities in Mugabe’s party strongholds, and not just an educated urban population sympathetic to the opposition. Before its closure, it had offices bombed, staff detained and computers confiscated.

Zimbabwe Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu nonetheless insisted his government was committed to a free press.

“I am an ally of the press. We are proponents of press freedom,” he told the Associated Press this week. “We are waiting for an all-inclusive government to be in place. You can’t just have an agreement and say that is the law.”

He accused the independent media of bias toward the opposition, while saying the public media were there to “serve everyone”, The MDC, which has said it would repeal repressive media laws if it gained power, has accused the state of jeopardising the power-sharing agreement by using the public media to denounce its rivals.—Sapa-AP

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