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IFJ gives cautious welcome to pledges of media reforms

(IFJ/IFEX) - 26 August 2009 - The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), cautiously welcomed recent announcements made by the coalition government in its effort to turn over a new leaf on six years of intimidation and stifling of independent journalists.

"There have been in recent weeks a flourish of announcements by government officials of the start of a new era of free expression in Zimbabwe. But the jury is out and, in the next few months, we will be watching intently to see what is going to come out of that process," said IFJ President Jim Boumelha following his visit to Zimbabwe early this month with a solidarity mission organised by IFJ affiliate in the UK and Ireland, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), and the British federation of trade unions (TUC).

The BBC and CNN were given at the end of July the green light to reopen their bureaux, then the leading privately-owned Daily News was rumoured by government sources to be allowed to publish again. Most importantly, a shortlist of 12 applicants to the newly-constituted Zimbabwe Media Commission was finally handed over by a parliamentary committee on standing rules and orders to the presidency for appointment. The setting up of the commission is expected to start the planned reform of the media.

The IFJ has for many years campaigned for the extensive legal regulations to be scrapped. Laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) served to justify media closures and actions against media critics of the government of Robert Mugabe.

The Federation has also been calling for a credible form of self-regulation, a radical new framework for media based upon international norms of journalism and free expression that encourages the free flow of information, and a strategy to help media overcome the impact of disastrous economic conditions

During the visit, the IFJ President met leading journalists, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, Information and Publicity Minister Webster Shamu, Information Communication Technology (ICT) Minister Nelson Chamisa among other government officials, as well as editors of independent newspapers in Harare.

Demands for media reforms to guarantee a free press feature at the heart of the current national debate on a new constitution. The IFJ affiliate, the Zimbabwe Journalists' Union, is campaigning among other things for freedom of information legislation, the recognition of the status of journalists and the transformation of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation into a public service broadcaster.

"All the politicians that I have spoken to are outbidding each other to echo our demands for media reforms and pluralism. The challenge now is whether these announcements are really going to lead to a change and allow journalists to do their work free of corruption and intimidation," added Boumelha.

In his discussion with ministers, Boumelha decried the catastrophic working conditions of journalists as a result of the country's economic crisis, describing them as "abject" and "scandalous". One of the most notorious consequences has been the flight of dozens of Zimbabwean journalists to seek alternatives of employment aboard. Apart from government, he said, media houses also needed to play their part in elevating the status of journalists and improving their working conditions.

The purpose of the solidarity mission by the NUJ and the TUC was to determine the needs of Zimbabwean journalists and design a working programme to strengthen the capacity of media professional groups representing journalists, such as the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists.

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