Information Minister Jonathan Moyo says the government may amend the country’s controversial media laws which have been condemned worldwide because they are repressive and are currently being contested in the courts by the Independent Journalists Association and the Associated Newspaper Group of Zimbabwe, publishers of the country’s largest circulation newspaper, the Daily News.
Though he did not elaborate on the proposed amendments, the international press went to town on the story in which it quoted Moyo as saying the government wanted to rationalise the media laws because “different situations require different responses”. The draconian media laws were enacted a year ago under the Access to Information and Privacy Act which seems to be giving journalists more freedom but in fact curtails it.
It appears the Act has already served its purpose. A local weekly, the Financial Gazette had reported two weeks before Moyo’s open confirmation that the Information Minister had held a meeting with editors of state-controlled newspapers telling them to tone down the propaganda campaign against the Movement for Democratic Change to make it more palatable to the public. In his address to army officers on March 13, Moyo said: “We are amending it (the Act) because we realise that at the time we enacted it temperatures were very high, but when the storm has gone you sit back and rationalise.”
Under the Act every journalist who wants to practise in Zimbabwe has to be registered with the Media and Information Commission and has to be a citizen of Zimbabwe or a permanent resident. Journalists who are not citizens or permanent residents of Zimbabwe can only be accredited for limited periods. Those writing for local media have to pay their application and registration fees in local currency while those writing for external organisations have to pay in foreign currency.
While most of the world attention on the Act was focussed on reporters who publish falsehoods, or those who falsify information, under which several editors are currently appearing in court, including former editor of the Daily News, Geoff Nyarota who is now in the United States, little attention has been paid to clauses that protect journalists and those that are detrimental to their rights as individuals, especially on their right to freelance.
Nyarota is being charged with reporter Lloyd Mudiwa for publishing a false story in which they alleged that a woman from Magunje had been murdered by ZANU-PF supporters, a story which turned out to be untrue. Nyarota was offered a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and failed to appear in court this month resulting in the court issuing a warrant for his arrest.
Apparently journalists seem to have paid little attention to subsection 1C of section 80 of the Act which bars them from freelancing without the permission of their employers. The subsection clearly states that except where they are registered as freelance journalists, local journalists are prohibited from collecting or disseminating information on behalf of a person other than the mass media service that employs them without the permission of their employer. Anyone who does so is liable to a fine not exceeding $100 000 or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years.
Most journalists are freelancing either under their real names or pseudonyms to make ends meet because of the meagre salaries they are paid. If employers were to enforce this rule, they could lose half their staff as freelancing in rampant, especially among the seasoned journalists. While most employers may be turning a blind eye to this, because they require the services of the writers, they can easily use this clause to dismiss journalists once they fall out of favour.
Journalists also seem to be ignoring a clause that could work well in their favour. According to a subsection of section 78, they have the right to refuse to have a byline on reports or materials inconsistent with their convictions. But more importantly they also have a right to refuse to have their bylines on stories whose content was distorted in the process of editorial preparations.
Though few journalists have accepted this, The Insider is aware that a number of stories that have landed journalists in trouble have actually been rewritten by senior editorial staff because the reporter “had missed the story”, when in fact, the editors wanted to push their point. In such cases, the reporters have not objected to their names being used on stories that have been extensively rewritten. In some cases, there have been reports that some senior staff have written stories and used bylines of their reporters. There are even whispers that some stories that have carried bylines of staff reporters were written by outsiders, including politicians.