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License to Censor: The use of media regulation to restrict press freedom - Zimbabwe

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 20 October 2011
Cite as Freedom House, License to Censor: The use of media regulation to restrict press freedom - Zimbabwe, 20 October 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4eccefc30.html [accessed 21 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 12,600,000
Press Freedom Status: Not Free
Licensing for print outlets: Yes
Licensing of journalists: Yes
Independent Regulatory Body(s): No

Introduction

In recent years, Zimbabwe's media environment has been among the most restrictive in the world, although there have been limited openings following the formation of a government of national unity in February 2009. A range of laws restrict media freedom, and laws concerning licensing and ownership are a key method of exerting government dominance over the media sector. Despite repeated calls for reform, the broadcast sector remains under complete state control. The government-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) runs all locally based radio and television stations, and these outlets are subject to considerable political interference and censorship, displaying a clear bias toward the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. While a number of private print outlets do operate, and several additional newspaper licenses were granted in 2010, licensing of both the print media sector as well as of individual journalists remains governed by stringent laws. While their reach is limited, short-wave foreign-based radio stations (many run by Zimbabwean exiles), international news channels available via satellite, and internet-based publications, news portals, and blogs do provide a small measure of independent news and opinion.

Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of expression, most aspects of the legal framework are equally restrictive regarding media freedom, and have not yet been reformed despite promises by the new government to do so. The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Broadcasting Services Act, Official Secrets Act, and the 2005 Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act severely limit what journalists may publish and mandate harsh penalties – including long prison sentences – for violators. Although the number of cases brought against journalists is relatively low, and the number that proceeds to trial and conviction is even lower, the threat of legal repercussions leads many journalists to practice self-censorship. While some instances of extralegal intimidation and violence against members of the press do occur, restrictive laws and the continued dominance of the state over media ownership and news content are the primary methods of ensuring government control in Zimbabwe.

Laws Relating to the Regulatory Framework

Regulation of both print and broadcast media in Zimbabwe has been significantly tightened in the past decade as part of a larger official strategy to stifle and control dissent from political opponents as well as civil society and the media. All media are regulated through the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which requires all journalists and media companies to be licensed, imposes strict content restrictions, and grants broad powers to a government-controlled regulator. Licenses for outlets must be renewed every two years. Foreign ownership of media outlets is forbidden by AIPPA (although non-citizens may own minority shares in companies that own media outlets), and in addition outlets may only hire Zimbabwean citizens or permanent residents.235

Strict licensing rules for journalists were marginally relaxed following a December 2007 amendment to AIPPA, under which accreditation of journalists is no longer compulsory, but is required to cover parliament or other public bodies, or to attend "national or public events." Journalists can apply as individuals for a license, and media companies are also able to make block submissions to cover a number of staff. The regulatory body is empowered to suspend accreditation for up to three months if journalists "abuse their privileges." Discussions to reform AIPPA and replace it with other legislation have been discussed, but the draft laws (a Media Practitioners Act and a Freedom of Information Act) have not been widely shared, and signals from President Robert Mugabe and other officials indicate that the reforms would not fundamentally alter the restrictive nature of the legislation, but would rather be largely cosmetic in nature.236

Since 2009, the licensing process for print outlets has been placed under the purview of the newly created Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC). Previously, the Media and Information Commission (MIC) and the information minister were in control of licensing and had sweeping powers to decide which publications could operate legally. The ZMC, which replaced the state-controlled MIC, was created as part of the September 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA) between the ZANU-PF and two factions of the longtime opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, under which a unity government was formed. The ZMC was given constitutional status by a February 2009 amendment to the constitution, which created implementing language for the GPA. Its stated functions are to uphold freedom of the press, to promote and enforce good practice and ethics in the print and broadcast media, and to ensure equitable and wide access to information. The ZMC inherited the MIC's structure and secretariat, as well as some staff, and the Ministry of Information is still empowered by AIPPA to be involved in the statutory regulator, so a large degree of political control remains built in to the new system.237 Funding for the ZMC is provided by the Finance Ministry. An amendment to AIPPA that took effect on January 1, 2011, effectively targeted international news outlets in Zimbabwe by imposing a new fee structure for such organizations and their local staff whereby applications and licenses for both outlets and journalists would cost several times their previous rates.238 The amendment was reportedly initiated by the information minister rather than the ZMC, which by law has the sole authority to amend such fees.

The ZMC is supposed to be independent, and encouragingly, the appointments process for its members is somewhat more open and transparent than the process for the MIC, under which the minister had total control over its leadership. After a slow start, advertisements were made for nominations, and then public interviews for the nominees were conducted. In August 2009, a parliamentary committee submitted to the president a short list of 12 applicants to serve as ZMC commissioners, from which a total of 9 were to be selected. After some political wrangling, representatives of all three main parties were involved in the selection process.239 Somewhat opaquely, the announcement of the final selections was made through the state media, without notifying the nominees directly. In addition, although the ZMC was envisaged as a temporary statutory body that would regulate the sector while a new constitution was being prepared, the commissioners were appointed for five-year terms, until 2015. The commission was constituted in February 2010, and in its first meetings decided upon a fee structure for media licenses. In early May, the ZMC issued guidelines for print media registration that required applicants to provide a code of ethics, projected balance sheet, editorial charter, code of conduct for employees, market analysis, mission statement, house style book, and projected three-year cash flow statement, as well as attach a dummy copy of their proposed publication.240 Thus far, the ZMC has not yet developed an industry-wide statutory code of conduct and has no mechanism to handle content-related complaints. However, in March 2011 it began the process of developing a statutory media council due to the number of complaints regarding media professionalism.241

The broadcast sector in Zimbabwe was a legal state monopoly until 2000, when Capital Radio, which was trying to obtain a license to broadcast at the time, challenged the relevant legislation. Broadcast media are currently regulated through the 2001 Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), which provides for public, commercial, and community broadcasting and created the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) as the body to regulate media and issue broadcast licenses. Applications must be solicited by the BAZ based on its own assessment of the need for broadcasting services, and cannot be submitted without a call for applications.242 Provisions of the BSA allow foreign ownership only at the discretion of the minister of information, mandate that broadcasters allocate one hour of broadcasting per day to be filled by the government, impose strict limits on origin and language of content, and set high licensing fees.243 A maximum of nine BAZ board members are meant to be appointed by the president with some input by the minister in charge of broadcasting, and to a lesser extent, by Parliament's Committee on Standing Rules and Orders, and the body is under the purview of the Ministry of Media, Information, and Publicity.244

The only broadcaster in the country, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), is state controlled. There is no provision or expectation of independence of the ZBC, whose mandate explicitly states that it should support the interests of the government in power. Mechanisms to ensure political control start with the appointments process; according to the 2001 ZBC Act, a government minister unilaterally appoints all members of the ZBC board, thus ensuring that ZBC content can be influenced to favor the ruling party. The mandated funding structure is ostensibly more independent: ZBC depends on income from license fees as well as advertisements, and does not receive public subsidies.

Impact of Regulation on Media Freedom

In recent years, print media licensing in Zimbabwe has been tightly controlled and highly politicized. The country's only independent daily, the Daily News, was banned in 2003, and attempts to obtain a new license for the publication under the MIC had been repeatedly denied. While media outlets and local advocacy groups are opposed in principle to the current legal and regulatory framework that permits statutory regulation of print media, they also view the ZMC as an improvement on the MIC and have worked within its ambit and guidelines to legally license additional print outlets. The ZMC finalized registration requirements in early May 2010, and gave mass media outlets and journalists a month to re-register or renew their accreditation without incurring a fine. A number of applications for new outlets were also received, and in late May, the ZMC approved licenses for three new daily publications – Newsday (published by the owners of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent), the Daily Mail (published by a ZANU-PF affiliated youth group), and the Daily Gazette (owned by the central bank governor) – and also re-registered the previously banned Daily News, as well as The Worker, a weekly paper.245 While Newsday began publishing the following week, some of the other papers, including the Daily News, have not yet begun print publication (although the paper does have an internet edition). The failure of other newspapers to publish probably indicates the primacy of economic challenges as a hindrance to the growth of media diversity in Zimbabwe; in the current climate, the ability to mobilize the financial and manpower resources necessary to publish is proving to be extremely difficult.

Tight regulations concerning the licensing of individual journalists under AIPPA continue to be cited in cases concerning the arrest and prosecution of journalists. In September 2010, Chronicle editor Innocent Gore was charged with contravening AIPPA by reporting "false news."246 However, in a greater number of cases, journalists are charged under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act; this was the case with several journalists – including the editor of the Standard, as well as several other reporters and freelance journalists – arrested and charged at the end of 2010.

Improvements in the situation for print licensing have not been matched by an opening in the broadcast sector. Broadcast media remain completely state controlled, and thus the government has a stranglehold on the medium that serves as the primary source of news and information in the rural areas, though broadcast media transmissions are estimated to reach only 30 percent of the population due to inadequate and crumbling infrastructure and a lack of transmission sites. Amendments to the BSA passed in 2007 made provisions for the BAZ to issue additional broadcast licenses; a number of applications for radio and television licenses have been submitted to BAZ, but none of these have yet been processed.247

Since the formation of the unity government, additional complications have crept in. While the GPA contained language regarding improving the licensing regimen for both print and broadcast media, and local activists such as MISA have undertaken a concerted campaign to liberalize the broadcast sector, different sections of the government have been sending mixed signals as to their commitment to reform, with some officials speaking in favor of licensing for broadcast, and others stating that the government will not license any outlets until it has the technical capacity to better monitor and regulate the sector.248 In addition, the issue of appointments has muddied the waters. Instead of following the required process (laid out above) for selecting board members, the relevant parliamentary committee took the list of nominations to the ZMC and then drew up a list of potential candidates for BAZ from this same list, ignoring protests that the two bodies were meant to be selected independently. The ZANU-PF minister of information, Webster Shamu, then appointed a board in September 2009 with limited input, appointing former MIC head (and Mugabe ally) Tafataona Mahoso as chairman of the BAZ board. After the appointments were challenged by the MDC deputy minister as well as media and civil society groups, the issue reached an impasse and BAZ has not yet become fully operational due to the protracted standoff.249 In May 2011, BAZ did issue a call for applications for two commercial radio licenses, to which 15 applicants responded, but this move was criticized as being outside the bounds of proper procedure (on the grounds that the board had not been properly constituted), as well as inadequate as it did not include community radio.250

In the absence of any operational private broadcasting, and also any progress on licensing new applicants for broadcasting licenses, shutdowns or closures of broadcast media are not an issue in Zimbabwe. However, some nonprofit and community initiatives have attempted to circumvent the lack of formal licensing and distribute news and information in innovative ways. For example, community radio initiatives have packaged information or content taped live at open air meetings or shows which they disseminate through CDs or DVDs. Some have been denied permission to hold such public events by the police. Other nongovernmental organizations (NGO) have developed services which transmit news via SMS services on mobile phones. The Freedom Fone service provided by Kubatana faced pressure from BAZ, which complained to Kubatana's wireless provider, Econet, that the NGO was "broadcasting" without a license. Econet did suspend the service but then reinstated it after a month of extended negotiations with Kubatana, and also notified BAZ that as a mobile provider, it was not regulated by BAZ and thus not subject to its licensing regimen.251

As part of the GPA signed by all factions of the unity government in February 2009, pledges were made to restore professionalism and adhere to a modicum of balanced coverage at state-owned media outlets, including ZBC. While balance did improve initially, coverage was still lopsided and the ZANU-PF part of the government did continue to exert its control over state media outlets. New appointments to the ZBC board were made in September 2009 by a ZANU-PF aligned minister without consultation with the MDC. In 2010, with the increased jockeying for power prior to elections that seem likely to happen in 2012, state media have returned to slavishly supporting the ZANU-PF while attacking the MDC, and calls for reforms at ZBC seem unlikely to occur in the near future.

Self-regulation of the media sector in Zimbabwe has traditionally been weak, but concerted efforts have been made over the past several years to improve industry-wide mechanisms for effective self-regulation. The Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), intended to provide a self-regulatory framework for the sector, was launched in 2007 by the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), an umbrella group of industry and media freedom organizations. However, the VMCZ only started operations in February 2009 due to insufficient funding. Its board is made up of 14 members (7 are members of the public and 7 represent media outlets). The council has formulated a code of ethics to which private media outlets subscribe, but enforcement mechanisms are currently weak and the council's main focus is on educating the media and public about the standards and the existence of the council's complaints mechanism.252 Complaints may either be settled amicably or taken to a Media Complaints Committee which has the power to demand that an offending outlet publish a correction or a retraction. Although the number of complaints being brought to the council rose from 2009 to 2010, many of these involved the state media, which do not formally subscribe to the VMCZ's code.253 The absence of state media participation in the self-regulatory system remains a significant gap, as is the lack of sustainable funding for the organization.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Despite some improvements in the environment for press freedom since the formation of the unity government, media regulation in Zimbabwe remains extremely restrictive, with onerous licensing requirements for print outlets and journalists that are not in line with international best practices and a non-functional system in place to regulate broadcast media. Repressive laws such as AIPPA remain on the books and have not been reformed, and recent moves in this direction have not been encouraging. Due to political infighting regarding appointments to its board, the BAZ continues to be unable to even operate, and there is no immediate prospect for the broadcast sector to be liberalized through the granting of licenses to independent radio and television stations. Small steps in 2010, such as the formation of the ZMC, the licensing of several newspapers, and a more active effort within the sector to promote self-regulation, have represented movements in the right direction. But without widespread reform of the legal framework and a commitment to open up the broadcast sector to private outlets, broader improvements in the regulatory environment will remain ephemeral. The government should therefore move to implement the provisions of the GPA, which explicitly call for the liberalizing of the airwaves.


235 Article 19 and Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)-Zimbabwe, "The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act: Two Years On," September 2004, p.4, accessed at: http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/zimbabwe-aippa-report.pdf

236 Interview with Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) commissioner and with Director, MISA-Zimbabwe, Harare, June 2010.

237 Interview with ZMC commissioner, Harare, June 2010.

238 Committee to Protect Journalists, "Zimbabwe hikes media feels under draconian media law," 13 January 2010, accessed at: http://www.cpj.org/2011/01/zimbabwe-hikes-media-fees-under-draconian-media-la.php#more

239 African Media Barometer (AMB) Zimbabwe 2010, p.19, accessed at: http://fesmedia.org/uploads/media/AMB_Zimbabwe_2010_English.pdf also interview with ZMC commissioner, Harare, June 2010.

240 AMB, p.20.

241 International Press Institute, "Zimbabwe Media Commission announces intention to form statutory media complaints body," 10 March 2011, accessed at: http://www.ifex.org/zimbabwe/2011/03/10/media_complaint_body/

242 Human Rights Watch, "Sleight of Hand: Repression of the Media and the Illusion of Reform in Zimbabwe," 20 April 2010, p.10, accessed at: http://www.hrw.org/node/89685

243 MISA-Zimbabwe, "MISA welcomes information minister's comments on ensuring greater access to information in marginalized areas," 13 October 2010, accessed at: http://www.ifex.org/zimbabwe/2010/10/13/access_to_information/ on foreign ownership, which limited ownership to 10 percent of the shares of the outlet, were repealed in the 2007 amendments to the BSA.

244 AMB, p.44-45.

245 Reporters Without Borders, "Three independent dailies allowed to resume publishing after almost seven years of censorship," 28 May 2010, accessed at: http://www.ifex.org/zimbabwe/2010/05/28/licences_granted/

246 "Panic grips Zimbabwe as military move in to seize State media," The Zimbabwe Mail, 2 December 2010, accessed at: http://www.thezimbabwemail.com/zimbabwe/6761.html

247 IREX, Media Sustainability Index Zimbabwe, 2009, p.407, accessed at: http://www.irex.org/system/files/3-Africa_09_Zimbabwe.pdf

248 MISA-Zimbabwe, "New broadcasting licenses not coming soon," accessed at: http://www.misazim.co.zw/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=738&Itemid=1

249 MISA-Zimbabwe, "MISA welcomes information minister's comments on ensuring greater access to information in marginalized areas," 13 October 2010, accessed at: http://www.ifex.org/zimbabwe/2010/10/13/access_to_information/ AMB, p.8, 45-6.

250 SW Radio Africa, Tererai Karimakwenda, "MDC-T say call for radio licenses 'bogus' and a diversion," 27 May 2011, accessed at: http://www.swradioafrica.com/news270511/mdctsay270511.htm Tichaona Sibanda, "BAZ taken to task over delays to free airwaves," 7 July 2011, accessed at: http://www.swradioafrica.com/news080711/baz080711.htm

251 AMB, p.32.

252 Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), "Constitution of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe," accessed at: http://www.vmcz.co.zw/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=50&Itemid=82 AMB, p.58.

253 Interview with Director of VMCZ, Harare, June 2010. See also the VMCZ website for examples on complaints and how they were resolved, at: http://www.vmcz.co.zw/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=52:about-media-complaints-committee&catid=34:code-of-conduct

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