Harare, May 5, 2010 - Online media is growing big, powerful and messy, said US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy, Bruce Wharton
In his message to mark World Press Freedom Day, which was celebrated on Monday, Wharton said:" "Online journalism is big, it's growing fast, growing in power, it's messy and it looks a whole lot to me like real participatory democracy," said Wharton.
Wharton who has extensive US government's experience working with online media, said the 2009 prison census done by the Center for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) found that at least 68 bloggers, Web-based reporters, and online editors were under arrest worldwide. He said this constituted about half of all journalists now in jail.
"The experience of the past shows that government controlled media can exist, and compete, with independent media in the daily newspaper market," said U.S. Ambassador Charles Ray, in a message to also mark World Press Freedom Day.
World Press Freedom Day is celebrated across the globe every May 3rd, representing an opportunity to commemorate the fundamental principles of press freedom and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
The event in Harare was supported by the U.S. Embassy Public Affairs Section and co-hosted by the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA- Zimbabwe) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Over 120 individuals attended the commemoration, representing civil society organizations, the international and diplomatic community and journalists.
"In the 21st century, the free flow of information and ideas within countries and across international borders can be a powerful force for understanding and positive change," said Ambassador Ray.
The U.S. Ambassador pledged his country's commitment to promoting media freedom "through… diplomatic efforts and…exchange and assistance programmes, working in partnership with non-governmental organisations."
Jameson Timba, Deputy Minister of Information, Media and Publicity, said the journey towards press freedom in Zimbabwe had been "slow, arduous, painful and frustrating both physically and mentally." He noted that the delay in setting up media regulatory bodies is inexcusable and called on the Zimbabwe Media Commission to exercise its functions independently.
"We have committed ourselves as government to replace AIPPA with two media bills- the Media Practitioners Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill," said Timba.
Veteran journalists Andrew Moyse and William Saidi described Zimbabwe's press freedom record as turbulent and called for the reform of media laws restricting the free flow of information.
"Any reform to AIPPA (the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) has been made all the more difficult because it has been drafted into constitutional amendment no. 19. This means it cannot be changed without a constitutional amendment," said Moyse, who is coordinator at MMPZ.
Saidi, who is also MISA Zimbabwe's Writer in Residence Fellow, chronicled his experience as a journalist since the 1950s, including visits to the United States, and said the first duty of journalism is telling the truth.
"You may be bashed and so on, but as long as you know that you are vehicles of change, you should be satisfied," concluded Saidi. He emphasized the media's role in exposing scandals, citing the Watergate scandal in the U.S. and the Willowgate scandal in Zimbabwe as examples.
In line with UNESCO's theme, the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Harare focused on the importance of freedom of information as an integral part of freedom of expression and as a contributor to democratic governance.
MMPZ showcased an exhibition featuring newspapers and radio stations in five Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries- South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Malawi and Zimbabwe. A quiz show on the media environment, ethics and personalities was won by Jennifer Dube, a reporter with the Standard newspaper.