BY HON SIPHO NDLOVU-MOKONE:
An independent, free, non-partisan, well equipped, ethical and professional media is an essential component of a democratic society. On the one hand, it provides the information which the polity require to make responsible, informed decisions, on the other, it performs a critical watch dog function, ensuring that elected officials uphold their oaths of office and campaign promises and that they carry out the wishes of the electorate.
Regardless of the fact that the Constitution promotes freedom of the media and expression, over the years, the media fraternity and the government has had strained relationships. The government has been known to ban foreign broadcasting stations from Zimbabwe, the likes of BBC, CNN and Sky News. Rising media fees for reporting in the country have also caused condemnation from the media with the fear that freedom of expression was bound to deteriorate.
In addition, election observers, in particular, The African Union in 2013 stated key priority areas in need of urgent attention and these include;
Alignment of the media laws to the Constitution,
Partisan reporting by the public broadcaster and state media,
Liberalization of radio and television ownership,
Safety and security of journalists and
Dual accreditation of journalists
Be that as it may, I must commend some of the initiatives that the Government, through the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services, has taken towards media reform. The government has gone to great lengths to make improvements on the five anomalies stated above. Allow me to applaud the efforts made by our Ministry to align some media laws to the Constitution, a move which we have all been waiting for since time immemorial.
I refer, in particular, to the repeal and amendment of AIPPA, which has been replaced by three pieces of legislation, namely, The Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill, The Freedom of Information Bill and The Protection of Personal Information Bill. Access to information by all and sundry is of paramount importance to the effective implementation of the recently launched National Development Strategy 1, and the attainment of an empowered upper–middle income society by 2030. And this is an ongoing process which started with media reform.
The Freedom of Information Act, which was enacted into law on the 1st of July 2020, constitutes the highlight of the Media Committee’s achievements for year. The Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill, which seeks to fully operationalize the entity as a constitutional body is expected to be enacted into law by year end. The third bill which focuses on safeguarding personal information, the Protection of Personal Information Bill, is due for presentation to the Cabinet Committee on Legislation. The fourth Bill, which seeks to further open up the airwaves, the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill is also due for presentation to the Cabinet Committee on Legislation. I am made to understand that the fifth Bill, The Media Practitioners/Regulatory Act which will provide for co-regulation as well as plug any other gaps left by the repeal process of AIPPA is also in the pipelines.
Augmenting the media law reform and alignment process is the National Media and Film Industry Policy, which aims at guiding the future development of the media and film sector in Zimbabwe. As a Committee we are looking forward to that policy. I am reliably informed that the policy document is being finalized for presentation to the Cabinet Committee on Legislation and is expected to be launched in 2021.
The liberalization of the TV and radio licenses is also underway, having begun in January 2020 with a call for applications for privately owned television broadcasters, campus and community radio stations. To date, I understand that public hearings were conducted by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe for 14 shortlisted applicants who are vying for six privately owned television stations. I understand the Authority carried out due diligence visits to assess the eligibility of communities that applied for these licenses. The six licenses were duly issued last week by the Authority, in accordance with their promise that they would be issued by the end of November 2020. I think this is cause for celebration as it marks the end of ZBC monopoly.
Concurrently, Great Zimbabwe University was granted a campus radio station in June 2020. The Authority, I am made to understand, is still processing applications from other higher and tertiary institutions and licenses will be issued on a case by case basis.
I also would like to applaud the efforts made by the Ministry, to set up boards for the parastatals that fall within their purview. We can all agree that business had been at a standstill with the absence of these boards, especially BAZ operations when we are in dire need of opening up of the airwaves. I am also reliably informed that the Minister is trying by all means necessary to ensure that community radio stations are up and running in all the ten provinces of the country, an act which is commendable. In addition, I must also commend the Ministry for working hand in glove with the committee and the media stakeholders, in a bid to make the media sector better.
At this point you might be wondering where your committee comes in in all this. Parliament, in turn, and the Portfolio Committee in particular has played its part in the national development agenda through its ‘watchdog’ role over the sector. The committee has been able to conduct public hearings in a bid to gather the views of the masses with regards to the two media bills that were before parliament. I am reliably informed that this is also the main reason why we are gathered here today, to have dialogue with all the stakeholders gathered here, so that we all come to an agreed position with regards to your concerns with regards to media laws.
Your Committee has also been able to conduct a number of oral evidence sessions with the relevant Ministry and its parastatals and other media stakeholders. On the side lines, the committee has also been capacitated especially with regards to the two Bills. This underlines the fact that Parliament, through its Committees, plays a complementary and co-ordinate role to central Government and should not be perceived as an adversary.
The need to increase access to information as provided for by section 62 of the Constitution remains critical. There is great need to realize the Digital Terrestrial Television Project (ZimDigital) which entails the migration of the national broadcasting grid from analogue to digital in accordance to the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) 2015 requirement for global migration. I understand that the Project has been standing at 40 percent completion for years owing to funding constraints and challenges in accessing foreign currency. My committee vows to push the Ministry more this coming year so that digitalization, which was due in 2015, becomes a reality.
The main task up ahead lies in ensuring sufficient speed in decision-making processes, allowing widespread participation in policymaking, guaranteeing accountability of decision makers and stakeholders, and encouraging responsible behavior among all those using our media outlets. Given the rapid pace and wide extent of developments in the world, it is imperative to call for frequent, broad, and open dialogues between the various sectors of society to best address the daunting challenge of utilizing and harnessing the media, without adverse effects on the socioeconomic fabric.
Hon Sipho Ndlovu-Mokone is the Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services. This is an edited version of the remarks she made at a briefing with the Election Resources Centre on the oversight role of the committee.