This week President Mugabe opened the 3rd session of Zimbabwe’s 8th Parliament. It was generally going to be routine until the Herald newspaper published a front page story alleging an intention by opposition members of parliament to ‘heckle’ the president. Little did Zimbabweans know that contrary to the general tradition, that story would be a prelude to a blackout of any live coverage of this particular opening of our Parliament.
Previously, the president’s motorcade, mounted military cavalry escort, and guard of honour walk into Parliament together and the actual speech would have been broadcast live on the state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, on television and its radio stations.
In fact, so routine is such coverage of Parliament’s opening, that Zimbabweans have a tendency to watch it out of curiosity, entertainment, even respect for the process. Or they may chose to take it for granted because it generally is ‘business as usual’ that the opening is live on state television and radio.
This time, however, there was to be no such routine coverage. For some citizens this may not matter much. Not least because there was nothing particularly new that the president had not said to parliament last month in his state of the nation address.
But the key issue here is not in so much the content of his speech but the democratic meaning of the event of opening parliament and defining not just the government’s but even the ruling party’s legislative agenda.
But the public have the right to know it, as it is outlined, and as it occurs. It is a general democratic practice the world over that executive and even the presentations of ceremonial presidents or heads of state to legislatures are treated with the utmost national seriousness in relation to citizens witnessing them live, getting informed commentary on their full and possible import, as well as commenting on how they view the issues presented. No matter how divergent these latter views are, they deserve to be heard and known by members of the public.
Today that opportunity was lost because of the state broadcaster’s blackout of the ceremony and speech both on radio and television. Whatever reason the Speaker of Parliament, ZBC or the ministry of media, and information and broadcasting services may give, such censorship is not only a denial of the right of all citizens to access information, to freedom of expression, but it is also a demonstration of utter contempt for the people of Zimbabwe. The latter being the ones who elect not only parliamentarians but also the president who constitutionally opens and sets the general agenda of the legislature.
The people of Zimbabwe have an inherent right to see for themselves what goes on with those they elect. Whether they jeer each other or respectfully defer to the president is something that they must see for themselves and contribute to further public debate on.
It does not help foster national democratic consciousness let alone culture if we cannot see what happens in Parliament, especially with key events such as its national opening or budget presentations and question time. And if parliamentarians allow such censorship to occur in their chambers, it bodes ill for freedom of expression and access to information in other spheres of our society.
While we have come to expect that the executive, through the Official Secrets Act, keep a tight lid on what it says and does in its meetings, it can never be a democratic trait for Parliament to follow suit. Especially when most MPs want to lay claim to being direct representatives of the people or, even, just their constituencies.
What happened on 15 September 2015 will go down in my book as one of the darkest days for Zimbabwean media freedom, freedom of expression and public access to information. Our pretense at being a parliamentary democracy was laid bare for the weaknesses that are inherent in it. We might not all want to see or hear what the president says to parliament in real time, but we have a right to do so. Even if we agree or disagree with whatever is said and done. Parliament belongs to the people of Zimbabwe and not to the Speaker, the executive, or the parties that have members in it.