Zimbabwe’s new information era

… rights groups are demanding a review of outdated laws on information transparency

By Raheela Mahomed

A new dispensation – a term you often hear on the streets of the capital – a progressive change now resting with Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The government says it’s paving the way with a new mantra geared towards economic and political reforms.

Since the removal of longtime president Robert Mugabe in 2017 – after the intervention of the military – and July’s presidential elections, the ruling ZANU-PF party says it’s been working to relax the rules around the press and digital outlets.

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which restricts media freedom and bars foreign correspondents from working in the country full time, was put in place by Mugabe’s regime.

The law has gagged the media and access to information.

Roughly seven million Zimbabweans have access to the internet. Mnangagwa is one of them.

The president is active on social media, interacting with citizens on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

Monica Mustvangwa, the minister of information, told Al Jazeera a free media is important for a new Zimbabwe.

“Zimbabwe is open for business, we’ve got everything to benefit from the freedom of press. I think as a country, as a ministry it’s our job that we rebrand Zimbabwe. What we are going to do is maybe look at the legislation and maybe we will use a tooth-comb to brush out what we don’t need,” Mustvangwa said.

A departure from the past – but not everyone is convinced.

The executive director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Tabani Moyo, told Al Jazeera it’s too early to decide if the political transition will herald a more open media environment.

“The government is trying to paint an advertising space of a government that is breaking with a dark past. But it has serious structural problems, you can see that its failing to pick up the low-hanging fruits of media law and policy reforms,” Moyo said.

MISA says at least 25 journalists have been arrested or assaulted this year.

Rights groups are demanding that outdated laws on information transparency be reviewed.

They are calling for amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act in order to democratise the broadcasting sector and the cyber laws developed in 2013.

The transparency of awarding media licenses is still questionable. Some of licenses have been given to new media houses, but most are government-funded.

Many Zimbabweans say they are poised for more media and information transparency as the country shifts from an era that was largely blamed for its restrictive tendencies on freedom of expression.

Independent tech hubs are springing up and reaching audiences with a different narrative.

Journalists and civil society members are trying to figure out where they fit in the new system.

“With the new government, so far we haven’t had any talk back on issues, but we are working in a grey area right now. We are just waiting and will continue to produce content. Hopefully no one tries to stop us,” Sharon Chideu, a journalist with Bustop TV, told Al Jazeera.

Shoko Festival, which is Zimbabwe’s biggest festival of urban culture, provides a platform for young people to play an active role through media and music.

The younger generation has also embraced comedy and satire as a more comfortable space to challenge political norms.

Comedians such as Comrade Fatso are spearheading this new-found space. He never misses an opportunity to use his shows to pass on political messages.

“Laughter is an amazing tool. I think it’s an amazing way to deal with repressive regimes. I think it’s a release for you as the activist or the artist to convert all the madness of political reality,” Sam Farai Monroe, creative director at Magamba Network, told Al Jazeera.

Zimbabweans will have to wait and see if they’ll have a more free media landscape, but for now many continue to push the boundaries.

 

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