Official’s Death Casts Pall on Press Freedom

President Robert Mugabe attends the burial of the Minister of Information and Publicity Dr. Tichaona Jokonya at the Heroes Acre on June 29 in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Anxiety remains high throughout the country regarding the future of press freedom following the recent death of Zimbabwe's Minister of Information and Publicity, Dr. Tichaona Jokonya, who had opened doors towards mending relations between government and media in a country where independent journalists are considered enemies of the state.

Jokonya (68), a career diplomat who served for many years as Zimbabwe's representative to the United Nations among other prominent postings, was found dead in his hotel room on June 24. The cause of his death has not been made public. He was accorded national hero status and buried at the country's premier cemetery, the National Heroes Acre, with full military honors.

Appointed in 2005 as successor to political maverick Jonathan Moyo, Jokonya extended an olive branch to the independent media in what many viewed as a commitment to mending fences. This was a rare occurrence at a time when the government continued to cross swords with the independent press.

The Zimbabwean government, averse to press criticism, has since 2000 tightened the screws on media freedom through harsh laws that have led to the closure of four independent newspapers, as well as the harassment and arbitrary arrest of journalists. Western international media correspondents have been hounded out of Zimbabwe.

Sadly for the future of the independent press, the initial extension of an olive branch was to be short-lived as Jokonya, one of President Mugabe's key allies, followed up by verbally attacking the country's independent journalists.

A Missed Opportunity

In an opinion piece posted on the Web site (June 28), former Daily News journalist, Guthrie Munyuki, described Jokonya's death as a missed chance to save Zimbabwe's diminishing press freedom.

"Given his diplomatic skills and open-door policy, surely Jokonya held the key to the opening of the Daily News, some of us thought. Three months into office, Jokonya held a meeting with editors from the state media and independent press," wrote Munyuki, positing that Jokonya had made overtures about investigating the closure of the Daily News, as well as the impact of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).

The piece continued: "… He was hailed as the man who could start a new chapter in the history of the Zimbabwean media. But Jokonya betrayed many journalists, especially those at the Daily News who had warmed to his 'kind' and 'promising' pronouncements when he first occupied office."

Munyuki further argued that Jokonya had been widely expected to act on the High Court ruling by Justice Rita Makarau that the Media and Information Commission (MIC) had been biased against the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) in failing to grant them an operating license. The ANZ publishes the banned Daily News and Daily News on Sunday. To the dismay of many, Jokonya slammed the door on the Daily News. He praised MIC chairman, Dr. Tafataona Mahoso, for being correct in not granting the newspaper a license, as AIPPA did not allow him to do so.

"The late minister was in full support of the stringent media laws and did little to change the landscape. His tenure represents another lost chance to correct the wrongs in the once thriving and vibrant Zimbabwe media," concluded Munyuki.

An Experienced Diplomat

To the many who mourn his passing, Jokonya will be remembered for his levelheaded approach — befitting for such an experienced envoy. He represented Zimbabwe well on the international stage, presenting the county's positions on key issues. After assuming the position of Information Minister, he had to undo some of the 'damage' to the media fraternity by Jonathan Moyo, whom Mugabe booted out of office.

But Jokonya had moments where his remarks were far from diplomatic. For example, he left tongues wagging when he invoked death to 'sellouts' of African ideals during a press call with representatives of the Washington-based Pan African Liberation Organization.

Describing journalists who worked as correspondents for Western media organizations as traitors, Jokonya warned them not to serve the interests of Zimbabwe's detractors. "You know what the end of a traitor is?" he asked, "the end of a traitor is always death."

Jokonya was lionized by President Mugabe as "a son of the soil," which is a nationalist term of endearment for those who identified with the cause of political emancipation from colonial rule and black ownership of the land.

In his eulogy, Mugabe further described the late minister as the perfect emissary to the world on Zimbabwe's land issue when he declared: "… leaders everywhere, we have this onerous responsibility of preserving and defending this only home we have, a home made ours by Divine Will. This is the message he [Jokonya] was trying to give to people outside who did not understand [the land issue].

The End of Press Freedom?

Far from the emotive land issue, Jokonya's death could itself be a death knell for press freedom because the late minister was a voice of reason, wrote Mavis Makuni in a column published in the privately-owned Financial Gazette (June 28).

Makuni posited that Jokonya's passing could not have come at a more inopportune time as he, unlike his predecessor, had a more mature and humane approach to the Zimbabwean media, as reflected in his open-door policy.

"Although this open-door policy had not yet yielded much in terms of bringing sanity back to the media scene, it was like balm to battle-weary practitioners, some of whom had been routinely subjected to unjustified arrest and harassment during Moyo's tenure," wrote Makuni in her opinion piece titled, "What now for media after Jokonya's voice of reason." She continued, "They (journalists) can attest to the reassuring morale boost of having a minister who was willing to listen and reason with stakeholders. It was the first step towards building bridges. But now that Jokonya's stint has been cut short, there must be concern within the private media as to whether the absence of his moderating influence will not result in a relapse into the toxic and belligerent atmosphere that became the ministry's normal modus operandi during Moyo's iron-fist reign."

Prior to his death, Jokonya was scheduled to brief the Cabinet on the restructuring of the state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings (ZBH). The restructuring of ZBH, formerly the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), entailed the announcement of a new board and the shedding of jobs.

"We may never know the full details and scope of the changes Jokonya had in mind and whether they will still be pursued in their original form. However, although he may have been slow to act, he was generally moving in the right direction. It would be a shame for whoever takes over as minister, or holds fort before a new substantive minister is appointed, to revert to the adversarial approach of the Moyo era, whose vestiges still remain," warned Makuni.

Acting Minister Named

President Mugabe moved swiftly to name Paul Mangwana, minister of State for State Enterprises, Anti-Corruption and Anti-Monopolies, as the acting minister of Information and Publicity.

During the 2005 ruling party's Kadoma East constituency primary elections, Mangwana made news when he burned ballot papers after it became clear that he was losing in the polls. He was defeated in the primaries by the current deputy minister of Information and Publicity, Bright Matonga.

"Zimbabweans hope the only thing he [Paul Mangwana] burns this time is the oppressive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act that has been used to shut down media outlets and control the flow of information via stringent registration requirements," commented SW Radio Africa (June 28), a U.K.-based independent radio station that broadcasts to Zimbabwe.

While a permanent minister has yet to be named, behind the scenes jostling for the position is taking place. Possible candidates include Matonga, and the government spokesman and permanent secretary in the ministry, George Charamba. The name of former information minister and now minister of Interactive Affairs, Chen Chimutengwende has also been mentioned.

As Andy Sennitt from Radio Netherlands (June 29) observed in a commentary: "We will be watching with interest for signs of any significant change in the attitude of the Mugabe regime to press freedom. But we're not holding our breath. The names and faces may change, but for Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party, it seems to be a case of 'plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.'"

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