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Clawback laws suffocate media freedom

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THE Zimbabwean authorities have resorted to clawback laws which infringe on access to information and media rights despite improving on the World Press Freedom Index, media groups and analysts have said.

BERNARD MPOFU

On Wednesday, journalists across the globe commemorated World Press Freedom Day, a celebration of free expression and a critical opportunity to raise awareness of the escalating threats to journalists and independent media worldwide.

In December 1993, World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) following the recommendation of Unesco’s General Conference. On 20 December 1993, UNGA declared 3 May as World Press Freedom Day.

In 2023, the theme for World Press Freedom Day is Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a Driver for all Other Human Rights.

According to Unesco, the theme signifies the “enabling element of freedom of expression to enjoy and protect all other human rights”.

But while journalists observed this day, some authoritarian governments muzzled the media, harassed and tortured journalists to entrench their hegemonic agenda.

According to the latest Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index, the southern African country this year climbed to position 126 out of 180 from 137 last year.

“The media situation in Zimbabwe has improved slightly since the dictator Robert Mugabe’s ouster in 2017. Access to information has increased and self-censorship has declined, the report treads.

“The media landscape is exhibiting an encouraging increase in diversity but remains dominated by state-controlled media, of which the national companies, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and Zimpapers, are the most important, with six radio stations, a TV channel and 10 newspapers, including The Herald, a daily. The privately owned Daily News and The Financial Gazette, a weekly, are also widely read. Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) publishes the daily NewsDay and the weekly The Independent, which are also widely read. There are four independent news websites, including Zimlive and The NewsHawks, and 14 community radio stations.”

The World Press Freedom Index, according to Christophe Deloire, the RSF secretary-general, shows enormous volatility in situations, with major rises and falls and unprecedented changes, such as Brazil’s 18-place rise and Senegal’s 31-place fall.

This instability is the result of increased aggressiveness on the part of the authorities in many countries and growing animosity towards journalists on social media and in the physical world.

The volatility is also the consequence of growth in the fake content industry, which produces and distributes disinformation and provides the tools for manufacturing it.
Malvern Mukudu, an advocacy officer at the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Zimbabwe chapter), said while the government has repealed draconian laws such as the Access to Information Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) and replaced it with the Freedom of Information Act as part of its reform agenda, the enactment of the Cybersecurity Act would stifle Press freedom.

“We have had positive legislation coming which has entrenched and deepened access to information and the repeal of Aippa and the coming up of the Freedom of Information Act as well as the Media Commission Act,” Mukudu said.

“But we have also seen clawback laws being passed with provisions that have the effect of limiting that same freedom of expression. I can talk about the Cyber and Data Protection Act and how it has done so. We have also seen even the undermining of judgements that have been given in the past, for example that were saying some laws that were criminalising falsehoods were unconstitutional. We have now seen those being sort of resuscitated again and being used to target members of the media.”

One of the provisions of the Cyber Security Act which has been widely criticised speaks on the need to seek consent when taking photographs or filming people in a public place.
In a statement to mark World Press Freedom Day, Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (Zuj) secretary-general Perfect Hlongwane also concurred that the cyber security law limited Press freedom.

“While the government repealed the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and replaced it with what seems to be a more media friendly law, the Freedom of Information Act, the Union is worried that the repealed law’s residue continues to linger in both Cyber Security and Data Protection Act and the Zimbabwe Media Commission Amendment Bill,” Hlongwane said.

“In fact, the enactment of the Cyber Security and Data Protection Act in 2021, which criminalises the publication of falsehoods, and the gazetting of the Private Voluntary Organisations Bill have the potential to torpedo the public’s fundamental rights relating to freedom of expression, association and privacy.”

According to RSF, the economic situation in Zimbabwe is holding back the development of the media. The cost of creating any new media outlet is prohibitive and discourages investors, while the annual licensing fees for a TV channel can run to tens of thousands of dollars.

This situation allows the state to maintain its grip on the sector, and nearly 70% of print and broadcast media outlets are still under its control. Poorly paid journalists, RSF noted, are exposed to the temptation of bribes, which weakens their independence.

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