By Crisford Chogugudza

Mass media reform is a crucial aspect of democratic transition in a post dictatorship era and accomplishing this task is not only a Herculean task but a difficult process that can make or break individual political careers. In Zimbabwe, a country characterised by a monolithic media dispensation for many decades, the partisan media has enjoyed an unlimited propensity of carefully orchestrated character assassinations and unduly personality cult that has made Zimbabwe one of the most hated places on earth.

When the Polish anticommunist Lech Walesa said in 1993 that, “the level and state of the mass media determine the development of democracy,’’ few people put much value on his remark. More than a decade later, Walesa’s comments became reality not only in the Eastern Europe but elsewhere including Zimbabwe where free democratic media is a rarity. In essence, Walenca’s rhetoric has direct and indirect resonance to the state of mass media in Africa where we have seen no significant growth of the media for decades and increasing politicisation and stage management of the media to a large extent. Also conspicuous in the media in Africa today is a lack of credible public media managers, low levels of journalistic training, and media outlets on the verge of bankruptcy, with governments and state apologists systematically attempting to stifle growing media independence, transparency and professionalism.

The corrosive nature of corruption in the corridors of power in most African countries will always prevent the emergency of free media in the continent. The media is seen as too powerful to be left to its own devices without draconian control measures as in the case of Zimbabwe. There is however, anxiety in the media fraternity in the country as to whether the new unity government will have the political will to initiate the much needed media reforms. However, the pace at which media reform will be achieved is a critical measure of how serious the new government is on opening up the country to more scrutiny by the international corporate media such as the BBC and CNN.

It is crucial to mention that the critical issue in the transformation of media in a post dictatorship is the legal framework in which the press operates. This quickly brings into mind the draconian legislations such as Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) as well as the plethora of requirements that restrict the flow of free press in Zimbabwe. These media laws and ludicrous regulations should not be allowed to exist in a free and democratic society.

More importantly, the people of Zimbabwe deserve a diverse media that gives alternative views to the government controlled press as well as the chance to promote democratic values and principles. A new legal framework that is reflective of the unfolding democratic dispensation in Zimbabwe need to be established. This legal framework is the real Gordian knot that needs to be cut by the new Unity government to accelerate the democratisation process. Understanding the importance of this nascent legal culture in the creation of a democracy-building press in Zimbabwe is not any easy feat, this may require confrontational attitudes if no meaningful progress is made. Nobody expects seismic changes to the current state of the press in Zimbabwe, but there is an expectation of gradual incremental changes that will eventually create Africa’s newest free democracy.

This requires maximum efforts from legislators from both sides of the political isle as well as support from Civil Society. Fighting for democratic free press is an equally difficult task as fighting for basic human rights in society that believes that these rights should not exist in the first place. Whilst it is recognised that Journalism practices across the continent are fast becoming more critical and inquisitorial in their approach as is the case in the West, this should not lead to gutter press or baseless witch-hunting. Politicians need to be more accessible and most importantly more accountable to their actions in order to win the trust of the people. Unfortunately, this can only happen in a post dictatorship era. The sad reality in Zimbabwe today is that there are currently no consistent dissenting voices that can provide checks and balances and ensure media freedoms can be secured and guaranteed at all times.

The country’s leading state newspaper, The Herald has very gradually been easing its ‘confrontational’ approach towards perceived its traditional foes and this has left the private press in some dilemmas. However, the private media needs to continue playing their critical role in an impartial and essentially constructive role in promoting a total free press and democracy in Zimbabwe. It is high time the budding politicians in media houses are replaced by professional journalists whose role is fundamentally to report news as it is. The people of Zimbabwe have been used to a Cuban or North Korean type of brain washing by the state media and this needs to come to a decent halt. It is however, important for the independent media to start focusing more on issues rather than personalities. Corruption, sleaze, greed and incompetence are at the heart of the African State and only through a free and robust media establishment can this dirty political culture; primarily anti-thetical to democratic reform could be obliterated. In order to become a new democracy premised on free elections, good human rights record, transparency, a free market economy and rule of law there is need for a free and robust independent media.

The Court of Public Opinion in Zimbabwe will judge the new unity government in terms of their ability/inability to deliver on the above critical issues. It is also true that restrictive press environments in emerging democracies create conditions for self-censorship and restrict diversity in media sources and content. This is still the case in Zimbabwe and the earlier the existing media restrictions are removed the better. The Unity government needs to move with speed to remove these barriers which may prove too difficult to ease should this new office bearers become too complacent. The threat of violence and intimidation from powerful politicians, hold ­over authoritarian press laws, and the fear of political system reversals in Zimbabwe similarly, threaten the development of autonomous or citizenship journalism in the country.

Political analysts have also commented that the lack of a strong and unshakeable, independent, transparent, efficient legal system in Zimbabwe will continue to be the main obstacle that hinders genuine reforms in a post Zanu PF era.

Yulia Savchenko, a 2004-2005 Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington D.C. describes the synergy between democratisation and free media as similar to that of the chicken and the egg.

She says;

‘’On the one hand, the extent to which a society is democratised determines the nature of media activities and the level of governmental control over the press. On the other hand, the media can play an instrumental role in creating the conditions for promoting democratisation (or impeding it, as the case may be). A free media and the process of democratisation are mutually reinforcing, as each can advance the development of the other’’.

Finally, it is my opinion that Media freedom in Zimbabwe is a still far from becoming reality as politicians in Zimbabwe have a tendency of hating bad press even if it is in the interest of the public. In principle, the MDC are embracive of the idea of a free media and need to address this critical issue before their political honeymoon period is over. One would be excused to say that there are many challenges ahead of the realisation of a free and independent press as a precursor to the creation of a truly democratic dispensation in Zimbabwe. The media will need to play a crucial role in supporting efforts of democratisation cognisant of the fact that there could be high casualties in the process. It is hoped that the planned dailies by the Fingaz and Independent come as early as possible so that they can give people an alternative voice since MDC and Zanu PF are still in bed together. Only the Media, Civil Society and Parliamentary backbenchers can meaningfully influence the status quo and steer Zimbabweans towards their ‘dreamland’ called free society.

Crisford Chogugudza is AfricaResource Political Columnist.