Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe deliberately delayed signing the recently passed Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill that drew international attention and condemnation. The bill, which was rushed through Parliament in time to be effected before the presidential election, might return to Parliament for further scrutiny.
The powers that Mugabe sought to amass to muzzle the press were rejected by the Zimbabwean Parliament. Among other things, the bill sought to compel every journalist to be accredited by a government commission before he or she can work in Zimbabwe.
But Parliament added several amendments to the bill that watered it down, rendering no distinct power to stifle freedom of press. Mugabe may be left with no choice but live with the moderate media laws that have been in place for the last 20 years.
Mugabe hasn’t signed the bill, and he may send it back to Parliament for revisions.
In the meantime, the media – both from the independent media and government-controlled media houses – continue to write what they like in an environment where journalists have been divided into either pro-government or pro-opposition. Contrary to expectations, the independent journalists have joined the opposition in advancing their propaganda blatantly. At the same time, those from the government-controlled media have expectedly become extensions of the ruling party. Independent political reports are now as rare as sand beaches in this landlocked country.
Intimidation is rife in Zimbabwe, and journalists from both sides have to walk a fine line. The battle between the divide has become so vicious that, every day, both sides have articles attacking one another. One leading independent journalist left the country, claiming he had left “for safety reasons.”
The bill was intended to control the media before the presidential election – in which Mugabe went on to win his re-election – on March 9 and 10. But Mugabe once again had miscalculated the loyalty of his parliamentarians; most of the parliamentarians said that, apart from the bill being draconian, it also gave unlimited powers to the minister of information to interfere and review decisions from all government departments, including the Supreme Court. The latter was the source of most of the resistance from Mugabe’s fellow ruling party leaders in Parliament.
Zvobgo, who previously served as minister of justice and a close aide to Mugabe, is chairman of the Parliamentary Legal Committee (PLC). The PLC reviewed the bill and offered a report to Parliament to vote on. Zvobgo broke ranks with the ruling party and turned into an opposition voice when he and the PLC rejected the bill.
“This bill was the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed in our constitution in the 20 years I served as cabinet minister,” Zvobgo told Parliament in January. “The bill is arbitrary, dictatorial and unconstitutional.”
Zvobgo also told Parliament that the minister of information and publicity, Jonathan Moyo, was seeking to grant himself “frightening powers” in an effort to muzzle the media.
Quoting former Chief Justice Gubbay, who was forced to go on early retirement last year, Zvobgo said: “Freedom of expression, which is in (the Zimbabwe constitution), is ‘one of the most precious of all the guaranteed freedoms.’ “
Less than two minutes after Zvobgo concluded the PLC’s adverse report, Parliament made a motion to reject the report. But when the leader of the house found that some members of Parliament supported Zvobgo’s report – and that, if the motion were put to vote, he would have lost – he immediately entered into negotiation with the PLC.
The negotiations resulted in the amendment of the bill four times before it was passed without any opposition from the opposition party. While Parliament was heading for the adjournment in time to allow members of Parliament to contribute to the presidential election campaign, the government invoked extraordinary parliamentary procedures that allowed debate to continue until the bill was passed. This had to be done so that the bill would become law before the election.
Another aspect of the originally proposed bill was an attempt to limit and bar all foreign journalists to report from Zimbabwe. The bill also sought to prohibit foreigners from holding any shares in a mass media service.
Zvobgo told the parliamentarians that a non-citizen media owner does not pose a threat to the country’s defense or economic interests, to public safety or to public order and to public morality. He said this clause was too broad.
In fact, the clause on foreign ownership was the most critical clause for Mugabe’s government. Speaking to journalists during the parliamentary session, the leader of the house and the minister of justice, Patrick Chinamasa, said all other clauses were open for negotiation, but the one that bars foreigners to own newspapers, radio and TV stations was not open for debate. But the clause was eventually amended to allow foreigners to buy shares into any media house as long as the individual person or company does not have the controlling shares.
The ruling party has a two-thirds majority in the PLC, and the disagreement between the PLC and the ruling party has demonstrated some democratic process within the party and the Zimbabwean Parliament. This is a new phenomenon, because Zimbabwe was a de-facto one-party state until 2000, when the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change challenged the ruling party and won 57 seats out of the 130 (the president handpicks 30 of them). The arrival of the opposition has livened the debates in Parliament, and the ruling party will have to work harder to pass any legislation.
Newton Kanhema is a Zimbabwean journalist currently on assignment for Newsweek in Harare after spending the past 10 years reporting from South Africa, United States and Kenya. The South African Government tried and failed to deport him in 1998 to silence him.