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Op-ed

Repression of the Press in Zimbabwe

Stephen Tsoroti, May 24, 2011

To date, Zimbabweans have the privilege to read a handful of independent newspapers, courtesy of the government of national unity, which has proffered the need for press freedom and access to information. Yet this has not translated into real press freedom, as more arrests of journalists, impromptu searches, raids on media houses and general abuse of media personalities is the order of the day.

Reporting in Zimbabwe is still a risky affair, especially for reporters with a reputation for what government considers rogue journalism. The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) still extends risks to independent journalists. The act has been applied several times to justify the arrest and intimidation of independent journalists and has been used in the prosecution of several journalists in country courts. AIPPA and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) have yet to be amended and implemented, respectively.

AIPPA has arbitrarily curtailed freedom of expression, by imposing unconstitutional restrictions on the practice of journalism. The law vests excessive power in the government-appointed Media and Information Commission (MIC) to determine who can and cannot practice journalism or register media organizations, and for how long. In addition, both AIPPA and the BSA impose stringent licensing conditions that have effectively paralyzed the development of private media. AIPPA imposes heavy criminal penalties for minor administrative offenses, which are often selectively applied against the private media.
 
The same law was responsible in the shutting down of four private newspapers: The Daily News andthe Daily News on Sunday in September 2003, The Tribune in June 2004, and The Weekly Times in February 2005. The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) has not licensed a single private broadcaster six years after the Supreme Court ruling striking down the state broadcaster's monopoly as unconstitutional. As a result, a de facto monopoly still persists. Both the MIC and BAZ were then heavily staffed by government appointees in contravention of the 2002 African Commission's fact-finding mission's report recommending that any mechanism that regulates access to broadcast media should be accountable to the public to reduce susceptibility to "control and political patronage."
 
Luke Timborinyoka wrote in New Zimbabwe, "The media, particularly the public media, have a critical role to play in healing the nation and giving Zimbabweans every reason to hope again." He continued, "As a society, we have been traumatized and lived long in an atmosphere of violence and intolerance; a cauldron of suspicion and hate and a dark and deep fog that has blurred us from the bright and inviting future that beckons in the horizon."
 
Marking the World Press Freedom day, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Charles Ray observes that, although parts of the media have been liberalized, the working environment for journalists remains legally perilous, which leads some media houses to practice self-censorship. According to global media representative bodies' barometers, Zimbabwe is ranked as one of the worst violators of press freedom and has also been described by the United States, alongside Burma and North Korea, as an "outpost of tyranny."
 
Recently, the ugly side of press repression visited the editor's office. NewsDay's office was broken into and newsroom computers were vandalized. Editor Brian Mangwende writes the much-followed weekly column "From the Editor's Bottom Drawer," which is critical of political injustices and social ills. His laptop was stolen, along with hard drives of other senior editorial staff.
There are other examples that freedom of the press is under attack in this country: the arrest of Sydney Saize; the incarceration of two Botswana Television reporters in Plumtree for investigating an outbreak of foot-and-mouth; the thumping of Harare-based freelance journalist Gift Phiri by suspected security agents; the arrest of VOP directors including John Masuku, and the subsequent closure of their radio station.
 
Media watchdog organization The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe commented that the official media has basically ignored civil society's calls for extensive media reforms, limiting themselves to lobbying for the removal of targeted Western travel embargoes imposed on some of their journalists for alleged dissemination of hate speech. It also publicized Permanent Secretary of Information and Publicity George Charamba's threats to ban Western and European journalists from covering events in Zimbabwe in retaliation after ZBC chief correspondent Reuben Barwe was denied a visa by the Italian Embassy in Harare to travel to the Vatican with President Mugabe to witness the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II.
 
Although it still has a long way to go, press freedom has made some strides in Zimbabwe. It was not long ago that independent news organizations like The African Daily News, Catholic Moto Magazine and the Zimbabwe Observer were banned for supporting Zimbabwe's struggle for black majority rule. Even the so-called "white press" came under direct government censorship.

In a country where the state threatens and hinders the operations of private newspapers on the basis that they are anti-government and are working towards regime change, additional freedom of the press is still needed.

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