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ZIMBABWE: Tough media bills passed

johannesburg, 12 June 2003 (IRIN) - Zimbabwe's parliament on Wednesday passed two media bills which the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) described as the "last nails in the coffin" of press freedom.

"The struggle is now quite difficult for us," MISA-Zimbabwe director Sarah Chiumbu told IRIN after the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Amendment Bill and the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill passed through parliament.

Amendments were needed to the original Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) after a parliamentary committee ruled last year that aspects of the law were unconstitutional. However, according to MISA, the amendments introduced by the Department of Information and Publicity in the Office of the President actually served to toughen AIPPA.

The act introduces a system of licensing of the mass media and journalists through a Media Commission whose board is appointed by the minister of state for information. The registration of media houses and journalists operating in Zimbabwe is mandatory, but is also at the discretion of the commission and, ultimately, the minister.

Minister of state for information, Jonathan Moyo, has argued that AIPPA would serve Zimbabwe's national interests rather than that of Western governments.

However, a MISA report alleged: "The act has one purpose, and that is protecting the institution of the government from scrutiny, by prohibiting and heavily penalising public/media inquiry and scrutiny into its affairs and, in addition, by an unrestrained control over journalists and media companies."

The definitions of "a journalist" and "mass media" are very broad under the amendment. "A journalist is defined as anyone who disseminates information for public consumption, and the definition of the mass media is expanded to include even a church newsletter," MISA information officer Rashweat Mukundu explained.

"The commission has the power to order journalists to appear before it to answer charges of misconduct. But we have courts of law for that - it shouldn't be a commission appointed by a minister," Rashweat said.

"MISA believes in a self-regulated, independent media council," he added.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill, passed on Wednesday, introduced minor changes to the Broadcasting Service Act of 2001, which has also been heavily criticised by MISA and human rights groups for its restrictions on independent radio and television.

"Radio is the only source of information some people have. Theoretically the law allows us to start radio stations, but in reality it's all in the hands of the minister," Rashweat said.

This month the Supreme Court put aside a judgement in the case of the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, owners of the country's only private daily, the Daily News, which challenged the constitutionality of the AIPPA registration process. Judgement is still reserved in an eight-month-old case of the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe, who have also challenged AIPPA.

"The only thing left to us are legal challenges, but the legal route is not giving us any reprieve at the moment," said Chiumbu.

Theme (s): Governance, Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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