NewsDay | Friday December 17 2021 M3 25 years in defence of effective press freedom BY GEOFFREY NYAROTA A FORERUNNER of the famous Windhoek Declaration was a small media seminar held on the banks of the Chobe River in northern Botswana in April 1989. This gathering brought together journalists representing the southern African region’s then fledgling independent press together with representatives of a global network of non-governmental organisations working to defend and promote freedom of the press and the right of citizens to freedom of expression. Zimbabwe was represented at Chobe by the late Onesimo Makani Kabweza and myself. Kabweza was then the fiery editor of a Gweru-based monthly Catholic publication, Moto Magazine. He was in the forefront of giving voice to critics of President Robert Mugabe in the early days of Zimbabwe’s independence. Among the foreign delegates present at Chobe was a prominent Swedish journalist and author, Per Wastberg. He professed to be a long-time friend of President Mugabe, going back to the period of the latter’s 10-year incarceration. By the time we met at Chobe, Wastberg, who took care of the late Sally Mugabe in Stockholm during her husband’s imprisonment, had become a strong critic of his former friend. Condemning his intolerance of criticism and of a free press, Wastberg described Mugabe as a “freedom fighter who knew not how to guard the freedom, once the fight was over.” Those of us from Zimbabwe, where we experienced the consequences of Mugabe’s intolerance, drew inspiration from Wastberg. It was the intolerance of the first generation of southern Africa’s liberation Presidents which inspired the journalists of the fledgling regional independent press to rally together to formulate a strategy which culminated in the landmark Windhoek Declaration. On 29 April, 1991, the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), convened a seminar in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, at which Kabweza and I joined fellow African journalists in discussing the principles of protecting the independence of the press from interference by politicians, on the one hand, and economic interests, on the other. This was during an era when major media outlets in southern Africa operated under the strict control of virtual dictatorship. The outcome of the deliberations was the signing of the Windhoek Declaration on 3 May and the formation, subsequently, of the regional Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). The declaration issued by the African journalists set out the principles committed to a free press, free access to information and media diversity and pluralism. In their resolutions, participants enjoined African governments to provide constitutional guarantees to freedom of the press and association. MISA was officially launched in September 1992 to focus primarily on the need to promote free, independent and pluralistic media, as envisaged in the declaration. Among the leading journalists who spearheaded the formation of MISA were Fernando Goncalves of Angola, Methaetsile Leepile of Botswana, Alaudin Osman of Malawi, Fernando Lima of Mozambique, Govin Reddy from South Africa, Gwen Lister of Namibia, Ndimara Tegembagwe of Tanzania, Fred M’membe of Zambia, as well as Kabweza and myself, representing Zimbabwe. Our goal was to fight for genuine press freedom and media diversity in our respective countries. In due course new privately owned newspapers were launched, while existing ones were reinforced. They included Leepile’s Mmegi in Botswana, The Nation in Malawi, Mediacoop in Mozambique and Lister’s The Namibian in Windhoek. In Zambia, M’membe launched The Post, while in Harare, we established The Daily News, of which I became the founding editor-in-chief. A total of 11 chapters were established in the SADC member states through which MISA operated at national level. While new newspapers took root or existing ones strengthened, the newly established national chapters lobbied for greater press freedom. There have since been crucial changes on the regional media landscape over the past 30 years. In Zimbabwe the local chapter has, since its formation in 1996, been active in advocacy work, while pushing for constitutional reforms. MISA Zimbabwe has positioned itself as an important player in the struggle to enhance the free flow of information in both the print and broadcast industries. It has challenged draconian legislation and scored a major success through the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in 2020. This replaced the reprehensible Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). While MISA Zimbabwe has done a commendable job in lobbying for press freedom, advances in media technology have contributed to that development. A major contribution has been the advent of the internet and social media. While in 1991 the major media outlets were limited to print and electronic, today’s government is hard put to exercise control over social media outlets, which now reign supreme, accompanied by the problem of disinformation. Meanwhile, concerns continue to rise with regard to the decline in the quality of professional journalism as fake news prevails. Such concerns are compounded by serious polarisation in the media, particularly between the private and the State owned outlets. As MISA Zimbabwe celebrates 25 years in defence of press freedom, the greatest concern which now counteracts the successes achieved by MISA is the bourgeoning of the scourge of media capture. This development negates the lofty ideals of the Windhoek Declaration. Over recent years there has been a discernible upsurge in the momentum on the part of some stakeholders in the trend towards seeking to establish effective control and ownership of both the private and public media. This narrow-minded development is a total betrayal of the Windhoek Declaration. Media capture seeks to preserve or promote the political or commercial interests or influence of a few politicians and corporate players. Not only must any efforts at media capture, some of them embroiled in outright corruption, be fiercely resisted; they must be exterminated. MISA must rise to the challenge of such new initiatives by devising strategies to combat any counter-productive media manipulation. Geoffrey Nyarota One effective strategy would be to inculcate among journalists the practice of powerful investigative reporting, as well as that of ethical journalism. ___________________________________________________ Geoffrey Nyarota is a founder member of the regional MISA and the founding chairperson of MISA Zimbabwe. He is also the founding chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum.