Zimbabwe relaxes foreign media laws

President Robert Mugabe’s government has published amendments to media laws that will allow independent newspapers to reopen in Zimbabwe and foreign journalists to be accredited for up to 60 days.

According to Reuters the government is proposing changes to the tough securtiy, media and broadcasting rules. AFP reports that three bills will be tabled before parliament on 18 December.

Peta Thornycroft writes that among the repressive legislation due to be amended is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which “makes journalists guilty of a crime if they are caught working without accreditation”.

A number of Zimbabwean journalists have been refused accreditation for the past five years and if caught working, they faced up to two years in prison. Most Western foreign journalists in Zimbabwe could not get accreditation and so also faced arrest, she writes. They may now apply for accreditation for up to 60 days.

The BBC outlines the changes proposed to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) as reconstitution of a Media Commission, which will ‘uphold press freedom’ and ‘enforce good practice’ and be appointed by president, but multi-party, the formation of a Media Council with representatives of journalists and media industry to deal with ethics and complaints.

Non-accredited journalists who previously faced jail work legally but remain barred from official events.

The media will be opened to foreign owners although foreign journalists still cannot work permanently in the country.

The AFP claims that at least a dozen foreign correspondents have been expelled under current laws and four independent newspapers shut down. The government in 2003 shut the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s then largest circulating daily paper, and its sister Sunday paper after the Supreme Court ruled that the publication was acting outside the law by publishing without a licence. The paper is still battling to get a licence.

Changes to the Broadcasting Services Act include a demand for public broadcasters to run news and programmes not biased in favour of the government and foreign investors can now have majority shares in a broadcasting service.

They are the outcome of talks brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki between Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party and two factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The Los Angeles Times reports that the “changes would theoretically make it easier for opposition groups to hold protest rallies, for independent newspapers to publish and for journalists not accredited by the government to work” but adds that there is widespread scepticism that this is an attempt by Mugabe to to create a facade of a free and fair election next year.

AllAfrica.com cites the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) as saying that the proposed amendment Bills “reflect no serious intentions on the part of government to democratise the laws in question, dwelling instead on inconsequential issues which will not advance basic freedoms such as the right to freedom of expression, media freedom and freedom of assembly and association”.

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