Media freedom-battle far from over

OPINION – The World Press Freedom Day 2011 came and go. But should journalists wait till the next press freedom day to lobby for media freedom? Fighting for media freedom is not a once off thing. It is a continuous battle till there is total freedom in every country the world over.

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However total freedom is far from being attained; what with repressive regimes continuing to trample on the rights of journalists in countries like Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Kazakhstan , Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Laos, Rwanda, Yemen, China, Sudan, Syria, Burma, Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea, Eritrea and Somalia.

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In Zimbabwe the airwaves are tightly controlled by the government and indications are that the government is not in the near future ready to give licences to private broadcasters.

\r\nAs media freedom continue to be trampled, hardily a week before the World Press Freedom Day, one of Zimbabwe’s leading daily newspaper, Newsday, newsroom was broken into. Observers have pointed fingers at the paranoid Zanu PF side of the inclusive government. And soon after the press freedom day government officials linked to Zanu PF have categorically stated that the government was not ready to issue licences to new players in the broadcasting sector.

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Though a number of newspapers have been licensed since the formation of the inclusive government in 2009, nothing has changed when it comes to broadcasting. At the moment the country has only one broadcaster; the government (or is it Zanu PF?) owned ZBC which even under the inclusive government continue to churn out Zanu PF propaganda.

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Just like during the Ian Smith regime, when Radio Zimbabwe was beaming into Zimbabwe from Mozambique, three radio stations which were haunted out of the country by the repressive media laws are beaming into Zimbabwe from various countries. The radios, VOA’s Studio 7, SW RadioAfrica and Radio VOP have been termed “pirate radio stations” by the fearful government. This is despite the fact that the stations are fully and legally registered in the countries they are operating from. And they have now become very popular with the information starved Zimbabwean populace. The funny part is that even Zanu PF politicians have turned to the ‘pirate radio’ in an effort to reach a wider audience.

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In trying to suppress the media, the Zanu PF politicians seem to forget that the global media landscape, no doubt has dramatically changed. The emergence of new media and tools such as the internet, cell phones and other devices has contributed immensely towards the global media revolution. Right now I am reading the informative online newspapers from Zimbabwe in USA thousands of miles from my home country, thanks to the internet. While the government continues to suppress the media, the story of Zimbabwe is still going out with or without the blessings of the government. A click on Youtube can give me raw news on what is happening in Zimbabwe. Noone needs a licence to upload his or her story on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook or any other social network.

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An editorial in the New Dawn of Liberia said: “These new media and technologies have not only helped to empower individuals and media practitioners to enrich their news gathering skills, but have also created new frontiers”.
It defies logic why we still have oppressive laws like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), Public Order and Security Act (POSA), Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) among others when the world over the push is for media freedom.

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While some argue that these laws should be amended, the truth is that they must be repealed. And journalists or any concerned Zimbabwean must fight to see that the laws are repealed. At times some of these laws may be forgotten and could lie dormant for years only to be used when the government has found it conducive. The Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA) which later became POSA had been in the statute books during the colonial regime. The law was almost forgotten until the Zanu PF government faced resistance from the people of Zimbabwe in the late 1990s.

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According to The New Dawn, in Liberia, the much touted free expression being enjoyed today is only at the good will of the present administration, because there are repressive laws which are still on the statute books of the country that could be used to hinder free speech by a tyrannical regime. Such regime will be acting in the framework of the law. The three anti-press laws: criminal malevolence, criminal libel against the President and sedition remain very active on the statute books of Liberia.

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Criminal Malevolence: A person has committed a first degree misdemeanor if he accuses any executive, authority, judicial authority, member of the legislature or any other public authority either by word of mouth, writing or by public broadcast of conduct which constitutes the commission of a crime, provided at the time of such accusation (a) the conduct charged is untrue and (b) the purpose of the actor is to injure the official in his reputation and undermine his official status.

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Criminal libel against the president: A person has committed a first degree misdemeanor if he exposes in the public any writing, or make any public broadcast, in which he has accused the incumbent president of the republic of Liberia of conduct which constitute the commission of a crime, provided that (a) the conduct is untrue and the actor knows it to be untrue; and (b) the purpose of the actor is thereby injure the president in his reputation.

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Sedition: A person, owing allegiance to Liberia has committed sedition, a felony of the second degree if (a) he advocates by word of mouth, writing or otherwise, sectionalism, countyism, parochialism or the like with the intent in so doing to incite the people to hostility, create disunity among the people and divide the nation. 

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These laws as surprising as their existence on the country’s statute books maybe, so is their applications in recent times. The New Dawn newspaper is the latest victim of the criminal malevolence law. This was in a case in which a junior level civil servant had chosen to seek redress for alleged injuries through criminal action.

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The criminal libel law against the president had also been applied in recent times against the Plain Truth newspaper but the case was abandoned thereafter. In fact the three anti-press laws have been used in recent times under the Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf administration, which is considered as the friend of the press.

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The truth however is that information can not easily be suppressed in this internet age.

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In reporting news from the world’s most troubled nations, journalists have made a seismic shift this year in their reliance on the internet and other digital tools. Blogging, video sharing, text messaging, and live-streaming from cellphones brought images of popular unrest from the central square of Cairo in Egypt, the main boulevard of Tunis in Tunisia and Misrata in Libya to the rest of the world.

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But is seems to battle for media freedom is far from over as the technology used to report the news has been matched in many ways by the tools used to suppress information. Many of the oppressors’ tactics show an increasing sophistication, from the state-supported email in China designed to take over journalists’ personal computers, to the carefully timed cyber-attacks on news websites in Belarus. Still other tools in the oppressor’s kit are as old as the press itself, including imprisonment of journalists in Syria, and the use of violence against bloggers in Russia.

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The Committee to Protect Journalists said: “What is most surprising about these Online Oppressors is not who they are—they are all nations with long records of repression—but how swiftly they adapted old strategies to the online world. In Egypt and Tunisia, the regimes have changed, but their successors have not categorically broken with past repressive practices. The tactics of other nations—such as Iran, which employs sophisticated tools to destroy anti-censorship technology, and Ethiopia, which exerts monopolistic control over the Internet—are being watched, and emulated, by repressive regimes worldwide”.

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And will the Zimbabwean government succeed in suppressing press freedom by jamming radio stations operating from outside? Will the government succeed in suppressing press freedom by breaking into independent newspapers newsrooms? Will the government succeed by harassing journalists? The answer is a big NO! The truth can not be suppressed.

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About the writer: Andrew Mambondiyani is a Zimbabwean journalist currently on Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT in USA

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