Thirty years ago on 29 April 1991, the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) convened a seminar in the Namibian capital of Windhoek which focused on promoting an independent and pluralistic African press.
Participants to the seminar, among other issues, had the opportunity to reflect on the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 59 of December 1946 which stated that freedom of information is a fundamental human right.
The seminar, which ended on 3 May that year, gave birth to the Windhoek Declaration on promoting an independent and pluralistic press, as well as the World Press Freedom Day, commemorated throughout the world on the occasion of the last day of the UNESCO seminar of 1991.
In their resolutions, participants encouraged African governments to provide constitutional guarantees to freedom of the press and association.
This year on 3 May 2021, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, freedom of information is as fundamental as it was in 1991, hence this year universal theme: Information as a Public Good.
It is against that background that MISA Zimbabwe, riding on the universal theme, and Zimbabwe’s ongoing media law and policy reforms, found it fit and timely to commemorate this year’s event under the theme: Information as a Public Good: In Pursuit of Section 62 on Access to Information of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
This comes in the wake of Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution, which now explicitly provides for the rights to access to information, freedom of expression and media freedom, among other progressive provisions under its Bill of Rights.
We, therefore, note that commendable steps were taken to give effect to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of information through the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act in 2020 in place of the widely discredited Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).
The new information law is a progressive step towards fostering citizens’ right to access information.
Other commendable developments include the licensing of the country’s first-ever community radio stations and ‘private’ commercial television stations as well campus radio stations at Great Zimbabwe University, Midlands State University, University of Zimbabwe, Lupane State University, National University of Science and Technology and Harare Polytechnic College.
This enhances diversity and pluralism in the broadcasting sector and citizens’ right to access information as a public good that assists in making informed decisions and choices.
MISA Zimbabwe is, however, concerned that these progressive steps risk being marred by some claw-back provisions in some of the laws that are before, or, have since been passed by parliament.
One such law is the Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill. The Bill is strong on surveillance of citizens and weak on balancing cybersecurity with the enjoyment of fundamental rights such as free expression online, privacy and protection of personal data.
Any form of regulation of the Internet should be aimed at creating safe online spaces for the exercise and enjoyment of rights as opposed to the criminalisation of online communication under the guise of dealing with internet abuse.
The recently enacted Zimbabwe Media Commission Act which gives effect to the Zimbabwe Media Commission’s mandate as a constitutional media regulatory body also has some worrying provisions that do not advance the critical role played by a free and unfettered media as envisaged by the Windhoek Declaration.
We, nonetheless, commend the government and parliament for allowing the media to take the lead in the drafting of the Draft Zimbabwe Media Practitioners Bill which should give effect to co-regulation of the media in Zimbabwe, with the Zimbabwe Media Commission acting as an appellant body.
However, co-regulation of the media should not be an end in itself but should be the catalyst to fostering a free, diverse and pluralistic media as envisaged by the Windhoek Declaration.
The 30th Anniversary of the Declaration is thus a momentous occasion for Zimbabwe, the Southern African region, and the entire African continent, to reflect on how far we have gone in living up to the letter and spirit of this iconic document in respecting the right to information as a fundamental human right.
For us as MISA Zimbabwe, and the entire regional MISA family, the Declaration is our inspirational tool and the very foundation upon which our vision, mission and values are anchored.
Thirty years later, the Windhoek Declaration’s legacy lives on as evidenced through the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights’ successor declarations and best practice on access to information, free media, free expression and internet rights and freedoms.
Windhoek Declaration @30, indeed a time to take stock!