Media Bill: Following Zimbabwe’s footsteps

by Scott A Morgan

Several years ago there was a concerted effort among those who are advocates for a free press regarding Zimbabwe. The country had a controversial election and the government was launching efforts to shut down its most vocal critic, The Daily News. Zimbabwe had set up a Media and Information Commission and has used legislation to further silence critics.

In 2002, the Zimbabwe parliament passed the highly controversial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This legislation which was promptly signed into law by President Mugabe was considered to be draconian by most critics overseas. As a matter of fact the Daily News was forced to relocate to neighboring South Africa. Other independent journalists relocated either to South Africa or Britain and most news now comes from the Ministry of Information or reliable international allies.

Currently, two of the most vocal regional critics of the Mugabe regime are Kenya and Botswana. Both countries this year have tried to enact similar legislation that could curtail freedom of the press in the two countries. Both countries are allies of the United States.

The Kenya Communications Amendment Bill 2008 or the ICT bill in the short form has some strong language. Article 86 of the bill will give the minister of information the power to interrupt broadcasts, dismantle TV and radio stations and tap telephones. The internal security minister will gain the power to seize broadcasting equipment.

There has been a backlash against the media in Kenya after the violent aftermath of last December’s presidental elections. Currently the bill has been passed by Parliament and is awaiting President Mwai Kibaki’s assent.

The internal situation in Botswana is somewhat different from Kenya. The country had a peaceful transition of government this year but it has a similar media bill as well. The Mass Media Practitioners Bill, if enacted, will give the Minister of Communication, Science and Technology the power to dictate how the private press can conduct its business.

These are just two examples that we can use to determine freedom of the press in Africa.

Most newspapers now have internet sites so this means that when crackdowns occur, computers are also seized. in Zimbabwe the security forces have the power to actually seize a computer on a whim if it feels that anti-government activities occur. It is not known if the security forces in either Kenya or Botswana have similar powers as well.

However the concern cannot be limited to just Kenya or Botswana. Freedom of the press is a legitimate concern in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as insurgencies in the east continue and the government and UN peace keepers are unable to stop them. At least 90 percent of attacks, threats and harassment committed against independent journalists were done by government personell without fear of punishment.

Now we are seeing a threat to online journalists as well. In Zimbabwe we know that any journalist, regardless of medium, is subject to arbitrary arrest but there are other countries that have similar efforts.

In Burundi an online journalist was arrested in September and charged with defamation. His crime? Being critical of a presidential trip to the Beijing Olympics. Relations between the government of neighboring Rwanda and the media are strained as well.

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The author publishes Confused Eagle on the internet and comments on US policy towards Africa. Confused Eagle can be found at morganrights.tripod.com
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