No government has the moral authority or right to limit this right without just cause, and in particular if the limitation is not intended to protect the rights of others.
Today we celebrate press freedom day when there is so much acrimony and polarisation in the Zimbabwe media environment. We are celebrating press freedom day when press freedom itself in a number of ways is limited in our own country.
Various pieces of legislation enacted by the pre-September 15, 2008 government, which include AIPPA, Broadcasting Services Act, Official Secrets Act, Interception of Communication Act, Public Order and Security Act and the Criminal Codification Act have been criticised by citizens, media practitioners and owners for limiting press freedom and freedom of expression.
As a country in general and government in particular, we cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand in order to unhear the cries for press freedom and freedom of expression.
As minister of the Government of Zimbabwe, I took an oath to uphold the laws of this country. That I will do, but I did not take an oath to agree to the said laws.
Instead I took an oath to provide wise counsel to the leaders of this country i.e . the President and the Prime Minister.
I do not agree with any law that limits freedom of expression to the extend that it does not violate the rights of others.
Some of the above pieces of legislation were used to close down newspapers and to deny the opening up of others leading to high levels of unemployment in our media industry and affecting the lives of many journalists and those that depend on them.
These laws unfortunately are also still being used to arrest journalists in the course of conducting their work.
The criminalisation of journalism, ladies and gentlemen, has no place in a democracy. The recent arrest of journalists from the Chronicle and others before them for criminal defamation is unfortunate and unacceptable in a democracy.
We have sufficient civil defamation laws in our statutes to turn to when aggrieved by scribes. To this end I associate myself with the statement by Commissioner General (Augustine) Chihuri that journalists should be allowed to do their work without fear of arrest, that it is the duty of journalists to hold leaders to account for our actions.
In doing so, and in conducting their work journalists must ensure that they abide by the ethics of the profession which among other things require you to be balanced, truthful and protect the innocent including children.
What is it that we should be afraid of as government and leaders in various spheres of our society by not allowing press freedom and freedom of expression. What is it that we would want to hide from fellow citizens.
An uninformed nation is a poor nation. If citizens are not informed or are misinformed or have limited information they are bound to make uninformed choices in every aspect of their life from economics to politics and as a result affect the development of individuals and the country as a whole.
In this regard the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists local press freedom day theme of media reforms, reconstruction and responsibility is appropriate at this juncture in the development of Zimbabwe.
What justification do we have as a country to have the second most sophisticated infrastructure for training journalists in SADC producing approximately 1 000 graduates a year and only absorbing 20.
How do we justify the investment of tax payers’ dollars in training Zimbabwean journalists who then move on to other countries because our own media space is closed.
Ladies and gentlemen, as a member of the new multi-party government, I cannot justify it. I am not sure that any other right thinking leader in this government would do so.
We have the most limited or should I say contracted media industry in the whole of the SADC region.
South Africa for instance has 36 private national newspapers and 110 private community newspapers, four private television channels, three public television channels, 49 community radio stations and no public print media.
Namibia, a country younger than us has six private newspapers, three private television channels, two public newspapers and 11 private radio stations. Malawi, one of the smallest countries in the region has five private radio stations.
Ladies and gentlemen, we need to face the challenges that confront us in the media industry honestly once and for all and resolve them because we cannot wish them away. The responsibility to do so lies on all of us, the government, the stakeholders and the citizens.
Making right what is wrong in our society is our responsibility. No one will do it for us for no one anywhere in the world owes us a living. It is a dishonest and false argument that the people of Zimbabwe in general, and the media stakeholders in particular are clamouring for freedom of the press and expression because donors and others are saying so.
We fought for these freedoms before 1980 and we are entitled to them on the basis of that struggle. Therefore the granting of freedom of expression and the press to our citizens remains one of the unfinished business of our liberation struggle.
Lets go to Kariba and fix it. In this regard, the government guided by the global political agreement (GPA) and STERP has committed itself to two interrelated actions.
The first one is to open up both the print media and the airwaves under the existing laws and secondly to review the existing media policy and laws.
The current laws as amended through the negotiation of the three political parties will in the interim allow for the registration of new media houses including foreign media houses by the Media Commission provided for under Amendment 19 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
The Media Commission will be constituted by the Standing Rules and Orders Committee of Parliament and appointed by the President after agreeing with the Prime Minister on each of the persons to be appointed to this constitutional body.
This process, I am advised is now being initiated by the Standing Rules and Orders Committee of Parliament.
On the broadcasting front, the Board of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe once in place shall advertise and invite for applications for the following licences in terms of the law: national commercial radio licences, national commercial television licences, local commercial radio licences and community radio stations.
The constitution of this Board is underway and it involves the Ministry of Media, the Standing Rules and Orders Committee of Parliament and the President and the Prime Minister.
The opening up of media space through registration of new media houses as described above, although necessary is not sufficient to guarantee freedom of the press and expression.
Beyond the GPA, STERP demands that government frees the media. Freeing the media means developing policies and laws that frees the industry.
In this regard the government during and post the ministerial retreat has adopted a new vision for the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity which entails the creation of “an environment that allows for unimpeded supply, flow and consumption of information”.
This vision is incorporated and subordinated to the Rights and Interests Ministerial cluster vision which includes the Ministries of Justice, Foreign Affairs, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs and Media, Information and Publicity.
The cluster vision envisages “a democratic, independent, peaceful, sovereign, prosperous and gender sensitive Zimbabwe that is rights driven, participatory and interactive in the global context and which is in line with the commitments of the GPA”.
As a starting point in moving towards the attainment of the cluster and ministerial vision, the ministry will be hosting an all stakeholders media conference in Kariba from the 6th – 9th of May 2009.
The strategic objective of this conference is to review our media policies and laws guided by our vision.
I am aware that some of you have expressed reservations about some of the presenters and the topics they intend to present on. I understand and appreciate the emotional issues associated with certain individuals in the media industry and our body polity but first may I urge you to be tolerant and assure you that a presenter or presenters do not talk to themselves but they talk to delegates.
A presenter or presenters do not determine the outcome or output of a conference but the delegates do. The delegates have the democratic right to hear or to unhear a presentation.
What is important is for you to recognise the importance of listening to divergent views including those that you do not agree with, but at the end of the day formulate your own opinion and make recommendations to the conference based on your principles, values and beliefs.
This is the wholemark of freedom of expression that I have no doubt you subscribe to.
The Ministry is committed to its vision of an unimpeded supply, flow and consumption of information. If this vision is properly interpreted and applied, our country will be able to meet the standard set by the African Commission on Human and People’s rights in its declaration on freedom of expression which states that “freedom of expression and information, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art or through any other form of communication, including across frontiers, is a fundamental and inalienable human right and an indispensable component of democracy”.
This is a standard that the government and its leaders should be judged by. This is a standard that as minister of the government, I have committed myself to and will make my own contribution towards its attainment within the constraints of my responsibilities.
I thank you.