Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
Southern African governments are not renowned for supporting media freedom or for promoting the freedom of expression but there has been a welcome improvement in the overall situation over the past year, according to the governors of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).
In a statement issued after their annual general meeting, the governors pointed to more positive dialogue between governments and media policy lobby groups, as well as greater recognition of the watchdog role that the media has to play.
However, the statement made it very clear that there will still some worrying issues. In particular, the governors condemned the continued intimidation and physical attacks against media practitioners – and called on governments to take the bold steps necessary to transform state broadcasters into genuine public broadcasters.
The statement also underlined the importance of access to information and emphasised that this is not a right of the media only, but a basic right and necessity for all citizens – and called on SADC governments, which usually prefer secrecy to openness, to show their commitment by signing the African Platform on Access to Information Declaration.
But on the whole, MISA’s assessment of the trends in the region was positive.
The governors specifically congratulated the new government in Malawi for facilitating the work of the media, ensuring that no media outlet is denied access to government advertisements and overseeing the awarding of 15 new broadcasting licenses – ‘a true indication of the willingness to open airwaves in Malawi’.
In Namibia, MISA is encouraged by the implementation of Communication Act and the interaction of the Communications Regulations Authority of Namibia with media houses, and the return of government advertisements to the independent daily newspaper, The Namibian.
MISA is also encouraged by the public commitment of the new coalition government in Lesotho to pass the Media Policy and Access to Information legislation within 100 days – and the governors pledged MISA’s support to facilitate this bold commitment.
In relation to access to information, MISA is ‘pleased with the efforts of the Zambian government and civil society to enact an Access to Information law within the coming months’ and called for ‘clauses on access to information, media freedom and the transformation of state owned media in the First Draft of the (new) Republican Constitution…[to] remain in the final Constitution’.
The statement also highlighted progress in Botswana towards enacting an Access to Information law and the fact that the governments in Lesotho and Malawi have also committed themselves to supporting the process of formulating this important legislation.
But there are still countries where little progress has been seen.
MISA singled out Swaziland where ‘continuous infringements on citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and media freedom remain a major concern’.
MISA also hopes that the ‘Zimbabwean government will ensure that media freedom, freedom of expression and access to information are enshrined in the new Constitution’ – and that authoritarian laws, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act, are repealed since these ‘laws have no place in a modern, progressive State that claims to promote democracy and sustainable development’.
Clearly there is still a long way to go before southern Africa loses its reputation for secrecy, but at least progress is being made.