The Bible is one of the most referenced book in the history of literature. Hebrews 13 vs 16 reads, “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Communication is one of the critical elements essential for the development of any community.
Journalists form a bigger part of the communication channels and are needed not only in a horizontal communication setup but also create a conducive environment for interchangeable communication between citizens and those in power.
President Emerson Mnangagwa, upon announcing the 21- day lockdown to curb the spread of the virus, made it crystal clear that journalists are part of the essential services group whose services were not going to be restricted by the lockdown.
In addition to that, freedom of the media and expression is enshrined in the Constitution of Zimbabwe in Section 61.
Specifically under section 62 of the supreme law, the aspect of access to information is clearly articulated as a fundamental right to inform the people on ongoing developments, particularly on Covid-19, measures being taken by the government and trends in other countries which are affected by virus whose operations might also have a bearing on Zimbabwean operations.
Security sector, the media and access to information
In what can easily be detected by a layman as violation of 62 of the constitution there seems to a bad blood between the security sector and the media which is growing at an alarming rate.
Despite assurance by the security sector that they will diligently work with journalists during the lockdown, the reality on the ground paints a contradictory picture as in any other crisis managed by security forces.
Various incidents of arrests, intimidation, assault and forced deletion of work across the country notably in Harare, Masvingo, Mutare, Gweru, Chiredzi and Chinhoyi show that the state is not really committed to guarantee journalists the freedom to access information.
A move that is counter-productive and poses a threat to free flow of information.
In a statement, MISA Zimbabwe condemned the ongoing attacks and urged the government of Zimbabwe through its various structures and the Zimbabwe Media Commission to play a proactive role in enforcing given directives, not to hinder media operations.
“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,” the statement reads.
Provision of timely, accurate and credible information is also supported by timely access to information by journalists from government bodies.
Timely press conferences are a welcome development on decisions and developments on Covid-19.
Government should also be ready to provide information on the go as a way of enhancing transparency and even accountability on preparedness, donor funds and use of other public funds on combating the virus.
In light of this, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe issued a joint statement on behalf of United Nations urging government to provide truthful information about the nature of threat, increase internet accessibility, access to information and combat misinformation.
In regards to journalists, they wrote, “…the right of access to information means that governments must be making exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists. Journalism serves a crucial function at a moment of public health emergency, particularly when it aims to inform the public of critical information and monitors government actions. We urge all governments to robustly implement their freedom of information laws to ensure that all individuals, especially journalists, have access to information.”
All hands should be on the deck to fight the spread of coronavirus. All stakeholders must play their part during this pandemic and beyond.
Civic Society and High Court commendable love affair
After a series of detentions, assaults, harassment and intimidations of journalists by the security sector, MISA Zimbabwe filed an urgent court application at the High Court demanding that journalists be allowed to operate in the Covid-19 lockdown without infringement.
This was a necessary move which came at a time when the plight of journalists is at the mercy of those with lockdown powers.
In another court application, MISA also filed a court application compelling the government to disseminate timely information on public and private testing, testing centers at all levels, available resources on fighting Covid-19 and distributed on all platforms using all local languages.
Thanks to the Midlands State University Institute of Language, after providing a hand to government, translations are currently in place though their distribution has not been seen as yet.
Transparency and proactive information provision is critical for citizens to make decisions and identify areas where there is more concentration of the novel coronavirus.
The participation of citizens is crucial if the nation is going to win this war. However, only an informed citizenry can make informed decisions on ways to reduce the spread of the virus.
Along similar lines, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights also represented Lucia Masvondo in filing a court application demanding that law enforcement agents respect human rights and stop harassing citizens during the lockdown.
In a commendable move, the high court has ordered the security forces not to crackdown on residents while enforcing the lockdown measures. Hoping it will not only be a ruling on paper!
They reiterated that the army and police should always respect human right and fundamental freedoms of human beings.
This move, is also in line with the recent recommendations by the World Health Organisation where they urged that African governments should not violate human rights in efforts to enforce lockdown measurements.