“The UK is committed to media freedom and the protection of journalists” – Ambassador Catriona Laing

“The UK is committed to media freedom and the protection of journalists” – Ambassador Catriona Laing
May 12 14:10 2018

I’ve been lucky enough to meet many brave and innovative journalists whilst I’ve been the UK’s ambassador to Zimbabwe. I’m only too aware that press freedom was severely threatened under Zimbabwe’s previous government. In the years after 2000, dozens of journalists were arrested, foreign correspondents were deported, some privately-owned papers were closed down, reporters were assaulted and writers were prosecuted after writing pieces that were critical of Robert Mugabe’s government and of his associates. I am sure that Zimbabweans and the rest of the world hope that that era is now closed though of course this will require constant vigilance.

Laws need to be aligned

The UK is committed to media freedom and the protection of journalists across the world. Freedom of expression and the media are essential qualities of any functioning democracy; people must be allowed to discuss and debate issues freely, to challenge their governments, and to make informed decisions. The UK deplores attempts to restrict freedom of expression. Our hope – and I believe that this is one that will be shared by almost all Zimbabweans – is that Zimbabwe’s media space will now be further opened up. Laws that limit press freedom in Zimbabwe need to be aligned with the new 2013 Constitution. Journalists need to be able to do their jobs without fear or favour, whoever they work for.

Vitally important that state press offers balanced coverage

In recent months, I’ve enjoyed taking part in radio programmes on CapitalkFM and authoring articles for the online and print media. In the run-up to this year’s elections, which will take place in the next three months or so, it’s vitally important that the press is able to operate freely. A free press must be independent from government manipulation or interference. It’s especially crucial that Zimbabwe’s state press fulfils its obligations of offering balanced coverage to the main contestants. That doesn’t mean that every single rally has to be beamed live and in full: there are few modern public broadcasters around the world who’d retain their audiences doing that.

Basic tenets of good journalism

But it does mean that journalists working for the public broadcaster must apply the same standards of reportage to all election stories and political figures they cover. And the basic tenets of good journalism – a healthy dose of scepticism, rigorous fact-checking, and the use of a variety of sources, voices and commentators – should be fostered in both the public and the private press. Opinion should not be presented as hard news. Unbalanced coverage helps no-one.

People must be allowed to discuss and debate issues freely

Many Zimbabweans are active and eager consumers of news, both on and offline. Social media platforms like Whatsapp are popular sources of news. It is important that people are allowed to discuss and debate issues freely in these spaces, to challenge their governments, and to make informed decisions.

Looking ahead, the news industry in Zimbabwe faces and will face some of the same challenges that news outlets around the world must grapple with to stay afloat. But as I’ve said several times, Zimbabwe has a wealth of innovative thinkers and technological ground-breakers. At least three of Zimbabwe’s 2017-18 Chevening scholars are about to finish their journalism-related Masters degrees in the UK. With the committed and passionate journalists I know work here in Zimbabwe and if the authorities show themselves willing to open up the media space, I believe the future for the press here does not have to be dim.

#WorldPressFreedomDay

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