The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been urged to take action on threats to press freedom in the region, particularly in Zimbabwe.
At a meeting with the SADC secretariat in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, a Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) delegation raised concerns that the mandatory licensing of journalists could be open to abuse by governments.
A particular source of unease was Zimbabwe's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the recent shutting down of the country's only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News.
"These laws will infringe on the freedom of movement of all SADC journalists, as articulated in the SADC protocol on information, sports and culture," said Thomas Deve, MISA board member and former online editor of The Daily News.
"[The SADC protocol] calls for regional governments to harmonise their legislation on media, in pursuit of freedom of movement and access to information," he noted.
The three-day visit to Botswana, which ended at the weekend, is part of a regional campaign, "SADC Journalists Under Fire: Speak out for free and open media – Targeting violations against journalists in the SADC region".
"The major problem is the fact that under AIPPA, for you to practice as a journalist you have to be licensed. What is also worrying for journalists is that some government departments do not recognise the accreditation card," said Miriam Madziwa, the Bulawayo-based editor of Zimbabwean newspaper, The Tribune.
"The question becomes: why should we register if the accreditation card is not recognised by government departments?" Madziwa said.
During local government elections at the end of August, accredited journalists allegedly could not get access to polling stations, or information from officials, unless they had accreditation specifically allowing them to cover the elections.
While it has been argued that Zimbabwe's AIPPA is meant to regulate the operations of the media and allow the free flow of information, the MISA delegation maintains that the Act is undemocratic, and places a number of onerous restrictions on the information that journalists, civil society and the public can access and report on.
Severe punitive measures that could be taken in the event of any crime being committed by journalists are also imposed by the Act. Records and other information relating to politics and other issues of national governance are strictly out of bounds, MISA said.
The Act does not confer the right to information on any person that is not a citizen, body corporate or mass media service, and not registered in Zimbabwe in terms of this Act or the Broadcasting Services Act.
"Zimbabwe should be a rallying call for countries in the region, because governments in the region undertook to expand and increase the number of players in the media industry," said Jacob Mafume, a MISA legal consultant.
"The situation in Zimbabwe is an indicator of how governments are moving, and the way they will implement SADC agreements. In Zimbabwe the government is trying to restrict media diversity and plurality," he charged.
MISA has just completed an audit of the status of media in the region, with specific emphasis on Zimbabwe, as a basis from which to lobby for a more favourable media climate in Southern Africa.
The MISA delegation pointed out that the African Commission on Human and People's Rights had adopted a Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa. Principle VIII states that "any registration system for the print media shall not impose substantive restrictions on the right to freedom of expression".
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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