Free flow of information essential for a democratic and prosperous Zimbabwe

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THERE are twin interesting developments in Zimbabwe which may not have grabbed that much public attention but which are significant in the larger scheme of active citizens engagement and evidence based policy formulation.
Firstly, the Ministry of Information has been holding a Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) with a 25-member panel, set up in December, touring the country soliciting for citizens’ views on how to reconfigure the country’s media industry. Secondly, in terms of the new constitutional procedure for appointing judges [Constitution, section 180]; the Judicial Service Commission [JSC] has announced that it will hold public interviews of the individuals nominated for appointment to fill three vacancies on the Supreme Court bench. Media representatives and members of the public are entitled to attend and observe the proceedings.
While views on these two issues have been diverse, this article would like to briefly discuss why these processes are important especially in relation to the citizens’ right to know and free flow of information. Despite the criticisms levelled against the processes, against the media enquiry, in particular, these developments are a significant step in nurturing a culture of democracy in a country where government has traditionally been opaque, with its dealings conducted behind tall Chinese walls. A replication of these processes at every level, in our view, would lead to the opening up of democratic space and contribute to an informed citizenry who are able demand their rights.
As some quarters have labelled the media inquiry outreach a waste of money, the Minister has defended the exercise before a Parliamentary oversight committee, stating that, “We think that it’s very important for us policy makers to accept that we don’t know everything … [Ordinary people can contribute in terms of policymaking and legislative making]. We have taken that view and we are happy with that view.”
One blogger has criticised the media inquiry on the grounds that “the information gathering exercises are indeed a waste of time and resources. We have been gathering information for years. When the government is hard pressed for money like this, it is programmes like the IMPI, which need to shelved. For years we have known that there are many parts of the country like Beitbridge, which have no ZBC broadcasting signal.Advertisement

“Surely what use is it to use money to send a team to ask these people for an input about how best to manage media issues when for many years they have been raising the same complaint about the need for a signal booster in their area? It’s just a money wasting exercise. Let’s work on the information that we have first and address the media issues that we already know, only then should we embark on another information gathering exercise”.
Another blogger responded that, “The problem with Zimbabweans is that they think they know it all when they do not. Right now some of you here do not want people to be consulted because you do not read newspapers or listen to the news. Has it ever occurred to you that some people do not read newspapers because you have the wrong news for them? Why can’t Zimbabwe be innovative and have newspapers for farmers, for cross-border traders etc and see what happens. This is what the Commission seeks to find out- what people want….”
In our view, rather than fully discredit the media inquiry, policy makers should seek ways of running it in a very cost effective manner and respect the principle of the exercise rather than focus on the minister undertaking the exercise. The principle of consulting ordinary people on what they want is essential for democratic and prosperous societies. If the process eventually leads to communal radios and newspapers and sector-based papers, that would certainly strengthen the voices of local people and better inform them to contribute to policy formulation.
Free, diverse and independent media constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. Free and diverse media facilitate the free flow of information and ideas, and ensure transparency and accountability. While media practitioners have been focusing on the role of technological innovations in information technology and communications in creating new ways of promoting freedom of expression, traditional outreaches into the communities still play a crucial role. Besides, technological innovations have also brought new challenges such as facilitation of state mass surveillance, apart from the cost associated with acquisition of such technologies.
One would be excused to still ask the question, ‘how does focusing on the media help a country that is on the verge of economic collapse?’ Put in a different context, how do civil liberties relate to bread and butter issues, especially in a current climate where Africa is beginning to say democracy does not work in Africa but the focus should be on peace, prosperity and investment. One might say, the right to free expression including receiving information does not mean too much to someone who is suffering from hunger or ill health because she cannot afford decent health care.
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights responded to this question when she said that, “People everywhere want to be able to fend for themselves, to provide food, shelter and healthcare for themselves, and want to be able to send their children to school. This is the idea of dignity that is enshrined in the Universal Declaration to which the international community, including Zimbabwe, has subscribed. The freedoms of assembly and association, the right to participate in decisions that affect one’s life and the right to move freely to seek opportunities are all essential for a life in dignity.
“Likewise, human experience demonstrates that the long term investment of capital, access to credit and the development of property, which are all necessary for economic growth and development, and for the realization of economic, social and cultural rights are difficult when there is an atmosphere of repression, fear and rampant human rights abuse. Respecting all human rights is therefore crucial.”
Pillay went on to quote the noted Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who aptly argued that no famine has ever occurred in a functioning democracy. It seems that the full, active and meaningful participation in designing and implementing government policies by those affected enables early warning of a crisis and the formulation of the most appropriate policy responses. Likewise, access to information, including through a free press, enables people to better prepare and protect themselves against such crises.
In the case of Zimbabwe, actively engaging citizens in policy making including holding one’s government to account present a clear opportunity for civil society organisations to bridge the gap between their programmes and ordinary people’s aspirations. This cannot happen without free flow of information, which is why it is important to have a free and diversified media, which reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of the country.
For instance, through Studio 7, the people of Manicaland who recently responded to our random survey stated that for the first time, through Studio 7, they are listening to independent voices that inform them about the rain patterns, markets and what their elected leaders are up to. Equipped with such information, these country people can better prepare for the planting season and they can hold their elected leaders to account.
When a country is going through economic problems, a subsistence mentality could easily lead its people to abandon initiatives that bring long-term prosperity. Strengthening institutions that lead to free flow of information is one such initiative that often suffers. If one were to closely examine most poor countries, one would notice that such countries have abandoned keeping their systems up to date. These countries would have abandoned statistical gathering and such other information collections exercises that help prepare the country for contingencies.
With crumbling systems, it becomes difficult to effectively deliver public services and prepare for disasters. In these countries, government departments compete rather than complement each other. Without a cohesive vision in the government, which is only possible if there is free flow of information from the state house, the town hall, to the village hall and vice versa, resources are wasted in the arbitration of power contests, thus leading to poverty.