- The number of attacks on the media in Zimbabwe declined last year. This however is not seen as good news by press freedom groups, holding that it only reflects the successful silencing of Zimbabwean media. Swaziland meanwhile is experiencing the steepest increase in attacks on the press in Southern Africa.
The Windhoek-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) will release its annual regional state of media freedom report tomorrow, on the World Press Freedom Day. The report, covering the period between January and December 2004, notes a decrease of attacks on the media by 10 percent from the previous year. MISA researcher Zoé Titus however does not welcome this seemingly positive trend.
In 2002, Zimbabwe had accounted for 120 (58 percent) of the 208 alerts recorded in that year. The following year, in 2003, Zimbabwe accounted for 102 (54 percent) of the 188 alerts recorded. Although Zimbabwe continues to lead in terms of the number of individual violations recorded, MISA documented a 54 percent decrease in the number of violations from the previous year - from 102 in 2003, to 47 in 2004 - in Zimbabwe.
MISA researcher Titus attributes this vast difference to the fact that the independent media in Zimbabwe has been "effectively silenced" with the vigorous application of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA).
- The closure of the 'Daily News' and 'Daily News on Sunday' in September 2003 and that of the 'Tribune' in 2004, have impacted decisively on critical and independent reporting, Ms Titus says. Zimbabwe's independent press is now mostly constituted of the two weeklies 'The Standard' and 'The Independent', which both face tough sanctions when they write articles critical of the Harare government.
In addition, Ms Titus adds that AIPPA's brutal 'licensing and accreditation' provisions "so diligently imposed by the Media and Information Commission (MIC) in Zimbabwe" have disqualified from the work place a multitude of journalists. Independent journalists and editors and foreign correspondents in large numbers have lost their licence to work as journalists in the country.
- Who then is left to harass? Ms Titus asks. "Those few independent voices left in the country have certainly experienced their share of harassment in the year under review," she says.
Whilst Zimbabwe recorded a decrease, the tiny and repressive kingdom of Swaziland on the other hand, showed a significant increase in the number of violations recorded in 2004, in fact a total of 29 individual incidences, as opposed to the official 3 recorded in the previous year.
Ms Titus observes a clear tendency of Swaziland following the Zimbabwean road of silencing all critical voices. "In an environment where citizens have been stripped of their right to political participation, where all judicial, executive and legislative powers are concentrated in the person of the King and where the entire Bill of Rights has been expunged - which enumerated the protections and entitlement of citizens - how can the media possibly report freely?" she questions.
On 12 April this year, Swaziland entered its 32nd year under an effective state of emergency. The King's 1973 proclamation stripped Swazis of many basic human rights, including their right to political participation, and snuffed out any embers of popular political activity. It banned political parties, concentrated all judicial, executive and legislative powers in the person of the King.
Demands for democratic reforms in Swaziland last year led to the beginning of a process that is to produce a new constitution. However, according to MISA, the 2004 Constitution Bill does not restore citizens' basic rights. "It entrenches the status quo and prevents the separation of powers essential to fairness and good governance," the Institute says.
While Swaziland is on a Zimbabwean road of media repression, the press freedom situation in other Southern African countries mostly had slightly improved, the MISA report concludes. Ms Titus however cautions that "there remains a need for media law reform as the environment is still littered with legal hurdles that stifle media freedom."
The media in Lesotho and Swaziland especially were economically crippled as a result of an increase of civil defamation cases which result in high financial penalties being awarded to successful litigants, according to Ms Titus. Also Zambia was in urgent need of legal reforms for the media sector.
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