afrol News, 1 February - The disputed media bill was passed by Zimbabwe's parliament on Thursday night, only awaiting President Robert Mugabe signature to pass into law. While local observers say the bill was "watered down" by several amendments, media organisations are protesting and plan to challenge the bill in the courts.
The infamous Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, nicknamed "Moyo's Bill" after the Minister of Information, had been somewhat "watered-down" with "far-reaching amendments" ('Daily News') before the parliamentary majority was willing to accept it.
Edison Zvobgo, dissident MP from the ZANU-PF ruling party and chairman of the Parliamentary Legal Committee, earlier this week had tabled a report on the bill, declaring 21 sections of the proposed legislation unconstitutional. Tough negotiations with Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa, last night however lead to a compromise.
Several amendments were made to eradicate the unconstitutional sections, and according to the 'Daily News', Zvobgo today thanked Chinamasa, whom he said "strove very hard" to meet his committee's demands, removing objectionable clauses and amending sections of the bill.
After months of confrontations, local observers see the final result of the amended bill as a defeat for the Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo, a hardliner in the Zimbabwean government. Vital sections, such as the general prohibition for local journalists to write for international publications or the provision allowing the police to confiscate materials from a media house, had been removed.
Still, the bill bans foreigners from owning a controlling interest in a media organisation. The media bill also provides for the accreditation of Zimbabwean journalists by a Media and Information Commission, a heavily criticised measure, but the amendment secured the inclusion of members seconded by the media houses and journalists to the Commission.
The media bill also theoretically assures the free access to information, although some bureaucratic measures were left. Minister Moyo in a speech to Parliament said the right of access to information was "integrally connected to the accountability of all institutions of governance by making details of their activities available to the public for scrutiny and assessment." He however criticised "the so-called independent press" of irresponsibility and promoting "deliberate lies".
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) today however noted that the bill "still contains restrictive clauses on accessing information." According to the media watchdog, it remained "at the discretion of public officials to release information and fees will be prescribed for different categories of information to be accessed."
According to the state-owned newspaper 'The Herald', even several MP from the opposition party MDC, which "could be seen thumbing the benches in approval," applauded the revised media bill. The MDC has strongly opposed the bill.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai however told the BBC today that the law was "the sign of a desperate regime trying to muzzle the press," and that his party still opposed it.
Basildon Peta, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Journalists' Union, called the bill an "abominable piece of legislation." Peta added that Zimbabwean media workers would not accept the bill and that the government would have to "expect massive resistance from us. Several media organisations have signalled they would defy the law.
MISA-Zimbabwe, which has campaigned against the bill for months, made a statements this afternoon, maintaining that "the amendments incorporated are insignificant and will do little to change the essence of the Bill."
- We particularly object to the stringent accreditation regulations that have been in place and the subsequent punitive measures that would be meted on would-be violators of the regulations, MISA-Zimbabwe said in a statement. "The registration of media houses by a commission and that of journalists has not been justified and remains unnecessary apart from the 'need' to harass media houses and journalists."
Direct protests have already come from the US and the British government. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, attending a meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington, told the press he strongly condemned the approval of the Zimbabwe media bill. Colin Powell repeated the condemnation and signalled it could have consequences for the US-Zimbabwean relationship.
Meanwhile, in Harare, President Robert Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai registered as candidates for the March presidential election. Tsvangirai doubted that the election would be held in free and fair manners.