Summary & Comment: The Zimbabwe Media Commission said it was ready to receive journalists’ applications for accreditation and registration from media organizations in May last year, a dozen of publications have been registered, but only a few are printing.
About a year after it was formed, the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) cites as achievement the fact that it has licensed over a dozen new print publications – even though only one is actually bei ng published. It hardly amounts to radical change to the country’s notoriously repressive media landscape, but Commissioner Chris Mhike tells Jackie Bischof, of journalism.co.za, that it does represent some progress for a commission that was set up as a political compromise and has no money. When Zanu-PF and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) reluctantly formed a government of national unity in Zimbabwe in 2009, independent commissions formed an important of the deal. An independent media commission was one of them, but it took many months for the delicate political balancing and dealmaking to deliver the ZMC’s members.
The commission began operating in early 2010 and quickly relicensed the Daily News, long banned, as well as NewsDay, published by Mail & Guardian publisher Trevor Ncube, and several other publications. To date, only NewsDay and Daily News are actually being published. Some observers have said this shows that the whole e xercise is rather pointless. But commissioner Chris Mhike, a lawyer who was previously involved in community radio and has defended media freedom issues in court, says: “Our role is to make a space for anyone who is interested in taking part in the media to do so. In the past… we can at least create an enabling environment in terms of possibility to operate. The economic dimension will be a whole different effort.”
The ZMC itself has had to work without any funding from the cash-strapped government, and ZMC commissioners do not receive a salary at the moment, only recently getting some money to cover their travel expenses. Speaking on the margins of the recent Wits conference on rights and regulation of the media, Mhike said: “There is underfunding. The government has very limited resources…almost all ministries are underfunded, and that includes the ZMC.” The ZMC is supposed to receive funding from the national budget, allocated by the Minister of Finance. The c urrent minister, Tendai Biti, was an advocate for media reform, which helps the ZMC’s cause, says Mhike. However, he doesn’t discount the potential for interference by the ministers in the future, in the form of restricting finance. “There is a potential that progress could be compromised through under-allocation of funds. But that is the situation with any other institution anywhere that draws funds from government. Many institutions in society which are supposed to be independent draw their funds from the fiscus anyway.”
Despite the lack of funding, Mhike says the commissioners are committed. “The commission was the result of a political process, and different political parties played some role in talking to certain citizens and appealing them to take a role society, particularly the media in the case of the ZMC. So there’s also a political dimension to this.” The organisation has nine commissioners, a chair and a vice-chair, all of whom have a background in the media and were selected through a public application and interview process managed by the Zimbabwean Parliament. The commission works on registering new media houses, making suggestions on ways in which legislation affecting media can be reformed, reviewing access to information appeals, amongst other things.
Several newspapers were banned in the years preceding the formation of the unity government. Legislation establishing the ZMC also requires it to set up a statutory media council, which will adjudicate over complaints against both private and state-owned media. The commission recently announced that plans for a statutory media council were going ahead, even though a Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe has already existed since 2007.
Although the VMCZ has been largely unable to attract support from the state media, it is seen as closer to the ideal of self-regulation than the ZMC. Speaking on a panel on media self-regulation, Mhike faced criticism from Feria l Haffajee, editor of City Press, who described the ZMC’s role as “bone-chilling,” and a form of government censorship. Mhike acknowledges the criticism and says he respects Haffajee’s views. “I did admit at the commencement of my presentation that self-regulation is the ideal. And that statutory regulation is not ideal in a democratic society,” he said. “I can understand that she would be unhappy with any form of statutory regulation. But coming from Zimbabwe … I know that the political realities coming from the ground do not necessarily allow for the ideal to exist in Zimbabwe. I think we must be pragmatic about the political and economic situation and other variables that might be existing in our different societies. Whilst I respect her view on the character of the ZMC and any other regulatory body which arises out of enactments of Parliament I still persist that given the realities of Zimbabwean society today, the ZMC will have a useful role to play in reforming the me dia landscape and the legislative framework of the media society,” said Mhike.
The commission faces an uncertain future, with the government of national unity failing to come to an agreement on many issues, and President Robert Mugabe pushing for constitutional reform which will allow for elections to take place sooner than planned – a move Prime Minister and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai is opposing. Mhike feels the existence of the independent commissions is protected, unless a new constitution strips them of their roles. “My understanding is that even in the current ongoing process …there would still be independent commissions in place, including the media commission,” said Mhike. “What may be different under a new constitution may be the role of a new commission. A new commission might attempt to regulate broadcasting and exclude the print media, leaving the print media to self-regulation.”