afrol News, 29 October - The Government of Zimbabwe has delayed the tabling of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Bill to accommodate the findings of the Media Ethics Committee, which is still collecting information from "stakeholders", the "Zimbabwe Independent" reported on Friday.
According to the report, government sources last week said the findings of the committee would be used to justify the setting up of a statutory (legislated) media council and the enactment of stringent laws to stifle media probes of powerful people. The sources said that the Bill would only be tabled in the House in the New Year (2002) and would be fast tracked into law before the presidential election.
Deputy Attorney General, Bharat Patel, confirmed to the paper that the findings of the ethics committee led by government loyalist and Harare Polytechnic media studies lecturer, Dr Tafataona Mahoso, would form an integral part of the legislation.
- It is still being discussed by cabinet, said Patel to the 'Zimbabwe Independent'. "I would definitely think that they would include the findings of the ethics committee. If they are looking for a code of ethics, the findings should form an integral component. They are waiting for the input," he said.
Independent newspapers have largely snubbed the ethics committee, which comprises of allies of Information Minister Jonathan Moyo. The major concern is that there are already a lot of bad laws that the government of Zimbabwe is using to suppress the media. Media law expert and opposition Member of Parliament, Tendai Biti said that there is a contradiction in the heading of the Bill.
- The two access to information and protection of privacy are contradictory because the Bill is supposed to liberalise and assist the public and the media to monitor the activities of the government and at the same time it seeks to enhance government's monopoly on the management of information, said Biti.
Government's thrust towards a legislated ethics body is running parallel to an attempt by media practitioners to set up a voluntary media council. The model code of ethics that media practitioners developed is however seen as not conforming to the government's political expectations.
There are fears that the government intends to tighten laws on criminal defamation and at the same time limit scrutiny of public officials under the guise of protecting the citizenry.
The government of Zimbabwe, through the Department of Information and Publicity, is expected to table the Freedom of Information Bill (FoI) when Parliament reconvenes in August 2001.
Deputy Attorney General Bharat Patel also commented on the progress made so far in drafting the Bill. "I cannot say much about the contents of the Bill at the moment but it does contain a section dealing with the rights and privileges of journalists and the code of conduct," said Bharat.
In earlier interviews Munyaradzi Hwengwere, Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Department of Information and Publicity, said the Bill will among other things seek to license journalists and set up a code of ethics which all practicing journalists have to abide by. It will also cover aspects of information dissemination by new media as well as making it easier for information to flow from government to media and from private sector to government.
Commenting on the proposed Bill, the opposition, Movement for Democratic Change, (MDC) Member of Parliament for Harare East, Tendai Biti said that for the proposed bill to have tangible benefits, there is need for the government to revisit the Official Secrets Act and the Law and order (Maintenance) Act which make it difficult for journalists to practise their trade.
- These two Acts were passed during the colonial Rhodesian era and the government has found it prudent to keep them in order to thwart any dissenting voice, said Biti.
On July 24 President Robert Mugabe alleged that the Bill would seeks to improve the quality of information which is available to every citizen by insisting on integrity and professionalism in the media which should be able to source information from most sectors on the strength of the Bill, but without undermining the citizen's rights to privacy as well as other competing rights, including those related to national security and the protection of children", said Mugabe.
He also indicated that the notorious Law and Order (Maintenance) Act will be repealed and replaced with the Public Security Bill, which will try to protect public order while paying regard to fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression, which are guaranteed in the Zimbabwean Constitution.
The Public Security Bill is set to replace the 1960 colonial Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA). Ironically it is under LOMA, that many nationalist fighters including Mugabe were persecuted by the colonial regime. Under LOMA, Zimbabwean journalists, most prominently, Mark Chavunduka, Ray Choto and Geoffrey Nyarota, have been arraigned before the courts under various charges.
The Public Security Bill was first tabled in parliament in 1997, approved by parliamentarians but rejected by Mugabe because it was not tough enough on dealing with the media and other sections of society which are seen as wayward.
The Public Security and the Freedom of Information Bill is feared to be the last nail in the coffins of the independent media in Zimbabwe, as state harassment and persecution would be legally sanctioned.