The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic among other major challenges poses the greatest test to Zimbabwe’s respect for its Bill of Rights more so as it pertains to media freedom and citizens’ right to access to information.
This comes in the wake of the 21-day lockdown declared by the government and the attendant stringent measures that have been put in place as part of efforts to prevent and curb the spread of the coronavirus which has claimed close to 90,000 lives globally.
Commendably, the government categorized the media as an essential service, among other critical sectors, whose operations should not be restricted during the lockdown period given the important role it plays in advancing the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms.
Regrettably, events during the first week of the lockdown have severely tested the country’s adherence and respect for the right to media freedom as provided for under Section 61 of the Constitution which also promotes freedom of expression.
Even more critical is Section 62, which provides for the right to access to information, which is very critical in keeping citizens informed on developments and measures being implemented by government and other key stakeholders in combating COVID-19.
Unfortunately, MISA Zimbabwe has since recorded cases involving the arrest and harassment of journalists and media workers (newspaper vendors) by the police during the first week of the lockdown. Notable recent cases involve journalists Nunurai Jena in Chinhoyi, and Panashe Makufa in Harare.
The journalists were accused of conducting their lawful professional duties without valid journalism accreditation cards issued by the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC). The ZMC is still to issue the requisite 2020 accreditation cards following the expiry of the 2019 cards.
It is against that background that journalists were given the go-ahead to operate until the new and valid cards are duly issued.
Ironically, by arresting and harassing journalists that are operating without the valid 2020 cards, the police are not only violating the right to media freedom but the government and ZMC’s directive that the media as an essential service, should be allowed to conduct its operations without hindrance until the issuance of the valid 2020 cards.
MISA Zimbabwe urges the government through the responsible Ministry of Information, the police and ZMC, to urgently address these discordant developments, which stand in the way of national efforts underway to fight the coronavirus, and poses the risk of denting the country’s respect for journalistic rights.
The media should be allowed to play its critical role in the free flow of information and ideas that will keep the nation informed in the fight against COVID-19 as well as the measures that individual citizens can take to prevent infections and spread of the virus.
In fact, the police and the media should play a complementary role in that regard. The police should therefore not view journalists and media workers as enemies and should accordingly be guided by the Constitution in the discharge their duties and responsibilities.
On the other hand, the media should be professional in conducting its lawful duties and ethical responsibilities in line with the profession’s codes and ethics and safety and security measures.
This will go a long way in ensuring that citizens access accurate, credible, verifiable and useful information about the pandemic and how they can prevent contamination and its spread in their various communities.
It should, therefore, be; All hands on deck against COVID-19 and Hands off the Media, in the fight against this global pandemic of which the media is a critical component.
COVID-19 is the enemy and elephant in the room, not the media!