MEDIA practitioners yesterday said Information minister’s powers over the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) should be limited and that any laws that seek to criminalise journalism must be done away with.

This came up during a public hearing at the Parliament of Zimbabwe on the ZMC Bill conducted by the Prince Dubeko Sibanda-led Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Information and Media.

The objective of the ZMC Bill is to protect the rights to freedom of expression and the freedom of the media as granted under section 61 of the Constitution. It will also extensively amend the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act by repealing all provisions relating to the regulation and control of the media.

Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe executive director Loughty Dube said the Bill was full of clauses which allowed the Information Minister to intervene in the operations of ZMC, which, therefore, meant that those clauses must be done away with.

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Section 2 (e) of the Bill states, “any other form of dissemination of information which may be prescribed by the Minister”. This is a very dangerous statement. Section 7 (1) (a) and (b) says the Minister of Information and the Minister of Finance are responsible for appointment of the chief executive officer. This is against corporate governance principles,” Dube said.

Dube also said the Bill should broaden the definition of “media practitioner” so that it is clear whether it wants to cover citizen journalists, camera persons or any other newsroom staffers who are not necessarily journalists.

Douglas Machongonye, who claimed to be a political analyst suggested that journalists must be given stiff prison sentences if they publish defamatory statements. But his suggestions were quashed by different media practitioners, who said one of the main reasons why media laws were being aligned to the Constitution was to ensure that journalism is decriminalised.

Media lawyer Chris Mhike said: “Bills are supposed to ensure media reforms and higher standards in reforming media policy. Calling for stiffer penalties on journalists is wrong and we cannot have such laws in a democracy as they are draconian. This is the 21st Century and not the 16th Century and if we criminalise journalism, people will be thrown into prison for minor crimes. The ZMC is not a law enforcement agency; it ought to be there to promote media freedom.”

He said section 9 of the Bill copies from the Commission of Inquiry Act and has draconian implications which give power to the ZMC to prohibit a person from participating in an inquiry.

“Empowering the Commission to prohibit a particular person from participating in an inquiry is not in line with democratic practices,” Mhike said.

Media Alliance of Zimbabwe programmes manager Nigel Nyamutumbu said the Bill should reflect the issue of co-regulation of the media in order to avoid the mistakes made in the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe legal expert Kuda Hove said the powers to ensure the rights of access to information were enjoyed should be vested within the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and not the ZMC because access to information also included non-media information.

AB Communications chief executive Susan Makore said the gender aspect must be included in the leadership of ZMC.

She said the Bill must clearly state the objectives of the Media Development Fund — whether it will bail out struggling media houses, improve media training standards or establish community initiatives.

Different journalists also quashed the involvement of the police in commissions of inquiry saying this would be tantamount to criminalising journalism.