New media law should act against threats to the media


By Juma Khamis 

Rahma Massoud is pleased with the government's decision to nitiate a legal process to establish the Media Service     Act (MSA).

 For her, the law will be a great saviour for the future of freedom of expression as enshrined in section 18 of the 1984 Zanzibar Constitution.

Rahma, a journalist, says the act will close the information gap that has been existing for decades between citizens and duty bearers particularly on public spending.

"The government has approved the legal process to have a new media law that will repeal the existing Act No. 5 of 1988 of the News Agency, Newspapers and Books and I hope it will be the best law,” she says. 

Rahma anticipates that the MSA  will provide access to information, specify the scope of public information to which the public is entitled, establish an independent media regulatory body and defining its responsibilities, promoting transparency and accountability of the duty bearers.

She argues that for the watchdog role of the media, the law will increase transparency and accountability in the way the government spends funding baskets, annual government allocations and development partners funds.

“Our efforts to demand better media law prior to this stage have not been fruitful, the government was not ready to listen to our cries and we continued to apply the law which is dangerous and oppressive for free flow of  information and the right to freedom of expression as government officials used this law to deprive us of important information,” Rahma says.

But she seems relieved by the government's commitment to support the legal process of establishing such a media law as the community will now be able to demand information on various development projects, including procurement documents to determine the proportion of planned and expended budget in each project.

Rahma is one of the journalists who participated in the initial stages of drafting process of the MSA, initiated by media stakeholders before submitted to the government.

Se believes that if the law is passed, the poor relationship that exists between the media on one side and duty bearers on the other side will be cutoff.

 “The relationship between the community and the executives has not always been good when journalists have been denied some information,” she says.

“We were not happy in the way we were treated, but we had nowhere to go. I believe the new law we are proposing will minimise the challenge,” says Rahma.

An independent advocate, Mpale Mpoki, however, fears that if journalists and media stakeholders do not closely cooperate, there is a risk that the Zanzibar new media may have provisions that restrict freedom of information as the Mainland MSA Act of 2016.

“Freedom of information is the soul of other freedoms, in its absence it is a threat to the development of the country and the well-being of society, so we must fight," he says.

Hawra Shamte, a senior journalist, thinks many of the challenges facing journalists would have been avoided if there had been a free flow of information between the citizens and the executives.

She says the gap between the people on the one side and the duty bearers on another side, which was an obstacle to the realisation of social and economic aspirations, could be resolved by the proposed new legislation.

 “We found that due to poor operational frameworks in our existing Zanzibar media laws, journalists were not performing their duties properly and freely so the expectations of consumers (citizens) were not met, which is why we have proposed amendments to the law," she explains.

Haji Mohammed, like Rahma, has high expectations for the proposed media law, as it will increase accountability in development plans between citizens and executives, people's participation in budget implementation in local government and transparency.

“The draft could help the involvement of local government leaders to encourage citizens to participate in development activities to achieve the desired change in their areas,” he says.

He is of the opinion that the proposed law can help remove the limitation of citizens to monitor reports and hold duty bearers accountable in the allocation and spending of development resources, especially in local governments.

He says the existing information gap has created a climate of mistrust between the public and executives with whispers and rumors on the performance of government activities growing.

"Since there is an information gap, some people spread false information about the government's performance," he says, adding that the proposed law could alleviate that challenge and create a climate of trust between duty bearers and citizens.

 "The new law can help executives and citizens to closely co-operate when setting up and implementing development projects," he says.

But, Haji fears that all these efforts will be in vain if the law takes too long to be enacted, passed and eventually implemented.

Deputy Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Youth, Culture and Sports, Khamis Abdalla Said, said the government has begun the process of reforming the information policy to keep pace with the times.

But he has high hopes that having better media law that will meet the expectations of stakeholders can be completed within a year.

"We are ready to work with stakeholders to ensure that the process of amending the information policy and media law is completed within a year," he said.

The Executive Secretary of the Zanzibar Law Reform Commission, Mdugi Ali, said after reviewing the stakeholders' proposals a new MSA bill had been submitted to the government for the blessing.

However, he hopes that that will be a better and more friendly law not only for journalists and media stakeholders but also for citizens and the government as a whole.

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