- Given the current media environment in Zimbabwe, "free and fair elections in March 2005 are highly unlikely," a fact finding mission to Zimbabwe said in a report released by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). Governemnt's "stranglehold" on the media should be addressed by regional bodies, MISA said.
In the end of June this year, MISA sent a fact finding mission to Zimbabwe to look into the state of the media in the run up to the Parliamentary elections planned for March 2005. The members of this mission were Pamela Dube, editor of Botswana's 'Mokgosi' newspaper, Fernando Gonçalves, editor of Mozambique's 'Savana' and Zambian Media Law expert Patrick Matibini.
In the 22-page report presented to a full house of South African and foreign print and electronic media in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 4 August, Mr Gonçalves added another precondition to the 5-points made recently; The guarantee for access to all parties to the public media.
This was after he had been told by interviewees that "state media hardly makes mention of any activities carried out by the opposition, and when it does, it is invariably in derogatory terms, projecting opposition leaders and their supporters as unpatriotic, sell outs, subversive elements seeking to overthrow the government and instigators of violence."
- The state media was also said to be used to propagate hate messages against minorities and incite hatred against a selected group of inconvenient individuals, according to Mr Gonçalves.
- Violence and intimidation is extensive to journalists and lawyers, Mr Gonçalves reported. "Independent journalists are not allowed to cover certain events, while lawyers find it increasingly difficult to access their clients who would have been arrested on politically trumped up charges. We were informed that lawyers no longer had easy access to the courts for the submission of papers on behalf of their clients."
Quoting the provisions of Article 21 of the Zimbabwean Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, Ms Dube noted that "the introduction of legislations such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), has effectively closed the media space in Zimbabwe."
- Professional journalism has been criminalised, she concluded. "The Mission heard disheartening stories of journalists who 'dare criticise' the government and/or the Minister of Information, whose applications to operate have been turned down, and can therefore not find employment even within the limited or non-existent space of independent media."
According to Ms Dube, this act had also "ensured that professionalism is sacrificed, especially in the public media, where journalists are forced – first by dictates of the Ministry, and second by the need to survive, to toe the political line.
The MISA report also makes reference to the report of the Zimbabwe Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Transport and Communications which, regarding fair and balanced coverage, reported that "it is submitted that the way ZBH (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings) cover events, especially political ones, left a lot to be desired."
The report further states that, as prescribed by law, in the coverage of the elections, the public broadcaster shall give reasonable and equal opportunities to all political parties contesting the elections. "The situation prevailing has shown that ZBH is not complying with this requirement," MISA concludes.
At the launch of its report, MISA renewed its call on the government of Zimbabwe to respect the country's constitution with regards to freedom of expression and to recommit itself to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, especially article 9, which Zimbabwe ratified on 5 May 1986.
MISA urged the African Union (AU) to take urgent measures to look into the worsening situation regarding human rights as reported in the African Commission mission, whose report was submitted to the AU in July 2004. Further, MISA called on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to demand that the Zimbabwe government take immediate measures to comply with the SADC norms and standards for elections.
- The Zimbabwean government must release its stranglehold on the electronic media and allow the operation of independent media including the recently closed newspapers, MISA Director Luckson Chipare said. "There cannot be free and fair elections without a free media and freedom of expression and measures to correct the prevailing situation in Zimbabwe need to be taken now in preparation for the planned March 2005 Parliamentary Elections," he added.
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