By Takura Zhangazha
A very significant debate on media self regulation has recently emerged in the United Kingdom and in media related professions across the world. The main reason for this is the phone hacking scandal of one of the UK’s leading private publications, News of the World. This scandal has since led the publication’s proprietors, on their own volition, to shut it down altogether. In the wake of these unfortunate developments, the Cameroon government, the Labour opposition, professional journalists and media related organizations have roundly criticized the media self regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) for failing to deal firmly with the unethical conduct of the now closed weekly. This is a debate that has since gone beyond the borders of the UK to countries such as the United States of America and Australia, among others, where the News of the World’s owner, Mr. Rupert Murdoch, has significant ownership of television and print media.
In Zimbabwe the thread has been picked up by some of our local papers and commentators and I am sure the debate has also been noted by those in policy making positions, either by way of Government, Constitutional Commissions or Parliament. It is also a debate that the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) has keenly followed, particularly after the VMCZ Chairperson and other members of the Board were invited to make presentations before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Information, Media and Publicity in the first week of July 2011. It is from the submissions made by the VMCZ Chairperson, Mr. Muchadehama to the Parliamentary Committee that I put up my own perspective on the democratic importance of self regulation of the media in Zimbabwe, notwithstanding the outcome of the debate on the same in the UK or elsewhere.
The premise of self regulation of the media across the world has been the recognition of the right to freedom of expression and access to information that is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and closer home, in Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. This right is further fortified in our current constitution in Section 20 of the Bill of Rights which states that every Zimbabwean shall have the right to receive and impart information without interference.
Self regulation of the media, in seeking to promote the full enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression by citizens through professional, accountable, ethical, fair and balanced reporting as well as voluntary codes of conduct for media practitioners, does not negate from the media’s responsibility of what is in the public interest or the promotion of democratic practice or culture. In fact it reinforces this through promoting a culture of consensus between the media stakeholders and the public on best democratic practice and understanding of democratically justifiable and publicly accountable reporting.
Self regulation avoids the spectre of prison for anyone who says, writes, broadcasts or prints opinions in pursuit of their enjoyment of their right, as well as that of others, to freedom of expression and access to information. Where there is a false, unfair or unethical report in the media, voluntary self regulatory media councils establish complaints mechanisms that seek to acquire resolution to complaints about the conduct of the media via consensus, apology, retraction and avoidance of costly legal suits.
As the late national hero, Honourable Member of Parliament and former Chairman of the Parliamentary Legal Committee, Mr. Eddison Zvobgo once opined while delivering an adverse report during the third reading of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) which introduced statutory regulation in 2002, allowing the state to undertake such actions would be tantamount licensing it’s own people to ‘speak’ and therefore in violation of Section 20 of our constitution. Since AIPPA became law and regardless of the various negotiated amendments by our politicians to it, it has continued the clearly undemocratic practice of seeking to register all of us to be licensed to speak and where we do so without the requisite clearance, we get arrested.
It is exactly because the media, which is the primary target of AIPPA, remains the main medium through which Zimbabwean citizens seek or attempt to speak truth to power in the interests of the public good and democratic values that politicians, as yielders of power, seek to gag the press.
The current circumstances prevailing in our country wherein those in power, who should be monitored in their exercise of power, are the ones determining which media houses they will permit to publish in a carrot and stick fashion (with the stick the one that is more liberally used), are patently undemocratic and inimical to the exercise of our right to freedom of expression and access to information.
Further to this, the Minister of Media Information and Publicity, Mr. Webster Shamu has been quoted as saying that journalists must understand media freedom to be a privilege and not a right. Such a statement can only be described as unfortunate because it betrays an underlying but mistaken assumption that freedom of expression is only enjoyed at the behest of the governments of the day. Because of this in most instances, government officials and influential members of the public have always found it convenient to seek the arrest of journalists and editors with alarming levels of impunity. Even those that are tasked with executing the arbitrary arrests of journalists appear to consider it ‘normal’ to do so.
What is happening with the Press Complaints Commission in the UK provides important lessons to Zimbabwean media stakeholders, policy makers. The first lesson being that it does not demonstrate anything wrong with media self regulation as democratic practice and principle. It merely demonstrates an aberration in a society where it is generally not expected that journalists can be so unethical. The second and even more important lesson is that the media in the United Kingdom are not the same media in Zimbabwe. And that the Zimbabwean media has committed itself to self regulation does not mean it will go the same route as that of the most likely changes that are going to happen to the Press Complaints Committee in the UK. Given our country’s repressive media history, it is imperative that self regulation be carried through in fulfillment of the broad commitment that all Zimbabweans have in enjoying the right to say their opinion and to defend to the hilt the right of the other to do the same.
Zhangazha is the Executive Director of the VMCZ. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org; Facebook Username: TakuraZ.