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In its World Press Freedom Day statement, MISA highlights "emerging threats, the need for vigilance and consolidation on media gains in Southern Africa"

(MISA/IFEX) - Windhoek, Namibia: 30 April 2009 - The UNESCO theme for the 2009 World Press Freedom day, Media, Dialogue and Mutual Understanding, aptly captures the wishes and ideal situation that many of us yearn for in the media in Southern Africa. We all wish for the media to be platforms for social dialogue, for the media to bring us together and more importantly for the media to be a mirror through which society reflects on itself, especially the ills of corruption, gender inequality, repression and suppression of dissenting voices, and indeed highlight the opportunities for socio-economic development and change in the region.

MISA joins the rest of the world, especially citizens, media workers, governments, civil society and other sectors of society in commemorating World Press Freedom day in Southern Africa. Every year that passes, this day affords us the chance to reflect on how far we have come in developing our media and how our media has assisted, or failed to assist in many challenges that our region faces. Critically, on this day we look and reflect at how society has treated the media and how governments have either promoted or destroyed the media.

We now hear arguments in the region, from those opposed to wider participation in decision makings among others, that the development of private media is in fact anachronistic to the needs of the people of Southern Africa. We hear arguments being put across in some countries that we need to go back to the monolithic state owned media, and that the private media is a danger to society and must be curbed.

These arguments are not only ahistorical but they also do not account for the repression of the media during the colonial era and how the state media were then used in this repression, but also do not account for how the alternative, private media liberated the people of Southern Africa.

It is on the basis of this phobia of the private media that newspapers and radio stations were shut down in Tanzania and Lesotho, and 60 000 copies of The Zimbabwean burnt in Zimbabwe. It is on the basis of the unfounded phobia of alternative voices that the Namibian government still maintains a ban on advertising in The Namibian. This ban does not take into account the fact that state resources are national resources and cannot be attributed to a singular grouping.

On May 3, we express concern on the steady movement towards state regulation of the media as happened in Botswana with the enactment of the Media Practitioners Act. We hope that propositions by the ruling party in South Africa on similar moves will be abandoned and instead efforts made to strengthen self regulation of the media.

The evidence of the destruction of state regulation is there for all to see in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's media has regressed since 2000 with the loss of tens of senior and experienced journalists and four newspapers. The state media is virtually shut to other voices except those that fall within the news framing schemes of the ruling elite. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) is a shadow of its former self, struggling to hold on to talent and strangled by the government. It is this scenario that the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has to avoid.

MISA recorded 163 alerts in the year 2008. These alerts are captured in our annual publication, So this is Democracy. The most serious media violations took place in Tanzania in 2008, with the acid attack on journalist Saed Kubenea of Mwanahalisi, in Lesotho with the closure of Harvest FM and in Zimbabwe with the arrests of journalists and burning of newspapers. Recorded violations show that some steps have been taken in some SADC countries to improve the media and freedom of expression environment, such as in Zambia.

In others, hitherto stable and promising countries, such as Tanzania, there seem to be growing threats against the media, hence the shutting down of Mwanahalisi newspaper by the government. In some countries in the region, there is a growing business and corrupt elite that instigates attacks on the media either using state apparatuses or other means. These threats to media freedoms have extended to cases where such individuals set up or buy into media houses exclusively for the defence of their business interests. It is for this reason that MISA calls on the media to take an interest and participate in efforts to set up self regulatory mechanisms. Such efforts, contrary to some perceptions, are not meant to shield the media from criticism but in fact enhance the interaction of the media with its publics as well as enhance media professionalism. On this day, we therefore, call upon leading media organisations in the region, in Zambia and Zimbabwe, to take an interest in self regulation, and look beyond the current political struggles in their societies and see into the future and how setting up these structures now, can guarantee stability in the industry in the long term.

MISA takes this time to appreciate the good work that the media has done in the region. Journalists and the media in Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Tanzania have gone through a lot but have remained resolute. MISA promises to always stand by you in all challenges. We take time to commend governments in the region that have opened doors for consultation on media issues. The Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique and Lesotho governments have set an example in this regard. We hope that plans by the Zimbabwe government to re-engage the media come to fruition and that Zimbabwe's media can direct its energies to reporting and developing their capacities and systems and not spend time in court, police cells or running away into exile. We hope that the Zambia government will also deal once and for all with issues of media law reforms still hanging for years. We wish all SADC citizens going through elections in 2009, peaceful, free, and fair and fulfilling plebiscites.

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