Independent papers get license to report Zimbabwe news

The first of five new independent newspapers could start reporting Zimbabwe news this weekend after receiving a government license.

By , Correspondent , Correspondent

The first of Zimbabwe’s new independent newspapers could be on the streets as early as this Sunday after media groups were granted licenses last week.

Sixteen months after the launch of the power-sharing government, the Zimbabwe Media Commission gave five groups permission to operate. Its action came after months of lobbying by journalists, publishing companies, and from within Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Until last week, the MDC’s partner in government, ZANU-PF, (the party of President Robert Mugabe), had been reluctant to allow potentially hostile new publications to appear on the streets, challenging the state-supported Herald’s dominance. Pressure for the move came from South Africa's president Jacob Zuma, who is the official mediator between the two parties.

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"As a party we have always advocated for media freedom and we are happy our dream has been realized especially with the help of our friends ... from South Africa," said Jameson Timba, deputy minister of Information and an MDC member. "There was a need to open the media space."

Alpha Media Holdings hopes to be the first company to hit the newsstands when its NewsDay publishes on June 6. It has been running dummy editions with a fully staffed newsroom and printing presses on hand ready for the ZMC’s decision.

Planning to join that publication will be Modus Publications, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, Fruitlink Ventures, and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions – the only other groups to apply for licenses.

The commission, which is chaired by Godfrey Majonga, a former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. newsreader, gave the go-ahead last Wednesday, but analysts believe the decision was taken high up in the ZANU-PF hierarchy, and possibly by President Mugabe.

“I’m sure they [MDC] played a part, but the decision would have come from ZANU-PF," says Zoe Titus, regional programs manager at the Media Institute of Southern Africa. "The decision to bring in draconian media laws in the early 2000s was brought in by them and was probably made in the president’s office.... Zimbabwe is under intense scrutiny at the moment and its democratic credentials are under the microscope, so this was a factor.”

Fewer people get information from newspapers

But, she says, the decision did not go far enough.

With daily papers costing $1 and Sundays $2, Ms. Titus said a decreasing number of people can afford to get their information from newspapers.

“While the world celebrates we should remember that there has been no change in the broadcast sector, which is strictly state-owned and controlled," she says. "Newspapers serve their function, but many people get their information from television and radio and those areas have not been opened up, although we are optimistic they will.”

The five organizations plan to publish five newspapers – four dailies and the unions’ weekly – that could create as many as 500 jobs. Journalists will automatically be accredited once they are employed by the newspapers. No reporter at any of the approved publications has so far been refused documentation.

Continued constraints on journalists

Journalists will still be subject to strict legislation, such as the Access to Information Protection and Privacy Act 2002 (AIPPA), engineered by one-time Mugabe ZANU-PF loyalist Jonathan Moyo. Journalists blame him – a former information minister – for bringing in draconian legislation such as AIPPA and the 2002 Public Order and Security Act. Among AIPPA’s provisions is the requirement that reporters wait 90 days for government information, while POSA gives police sweeping powers to ban meetings and marches and arrest reporters who attend them.

The restrictions, plus criminal defamation laws, resulted in the closure of many media outlets, including the independent Daily News, in 2003. That newspaper is now to be resurrected.

Seasoned media watchers say reporters will still need to tread carefully.

“The move to give other organizations the right to publish other than state organs is a welcome move, because most of the journalists on the streets and those abroad will get jobs," says Barnabas Thodhlana, a former associate editor of the Daily News on Sunday as well as the founding editor of NewsDay.

But he adds, “the same actors who banned The Daily News are still in government and will do anything to make sure journalists don’t exercise their watchdog status on the government. There is need for extreme professional conduct on the part of journalists. They need to check and check again their facts to avoid publishing falsehoods."

Harare media consultant Jealousy Mawarire says that "progressive forces" in government influenced the licensing decision. "But to a larger extent it is the realization by ZANU-PF that the media no longer reach the general populace and have no influence on politics," he argues. "If you look at broadcasting, for example, only 43 percent of the country can access the television and radio stations in operation.

“ZANU-PF is very aware that the economy can’t sustain so many newspapers on the market because of the under-performing economy. Many of these newspapers will close down due to viability problems," he adds. "We have few advertisers who can match the arrival of so many players.”

Zimbabwe Journalists for Human Rights chairman Pedzisai Ruhanya agrees. “I think the inclusive government responded to the pressure of reforming the media," he says. "They had to be seen to be doing something about it because it is one of the items in their GPA [Global Political Agreement]. The other thing is that there is a high possibility that elections will be held next year and this is part of leveling the playing field ahead of the polls. The next election should be credible and this is part of trying to live to the international standards.”

But companies are nonetheless positive about the future. ALPHA Media chief executive officer Raphael Khumalo. whose stable has The Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard, says they are ready. "Obviously these are exciting developments," he says. "What we have been waiting to do in two years we are now able to immediately. It will be our wish that we will be able to report on issues that affect Zimbabweans in the townships and in the rural areas.”

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