Zimbabwe: Democracy’s Dimming

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is not brushing up his valedictory speech after all. He fed it into the State House shredder in April when he announced that come Zimbabwe’s 2002 elections, his name will again be on the ballot. The president’s announcement that he will not hand over the baton to others—as Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, and Ketumile Masire in Botswana have done—is widely regarded as a blow to democracy.

“To say that the rule of law and democracy in Zimbabwe are gravely imperiled by the government—as stated by the International Bar Association—is a gross understatement that needs no amplification,” said the independent weekly Financial Gazette of Harare (May 2).

Harare’s privately owned Daily News had no sweet words about Mugabe’s bid for another presidential term either. “Mugabe himself has felt it is necessary to explain why he feels he ought to stand for president next year: He wants to see through his controversial and bloody land-reform program. This suggests that even he felt he had been in the saddle long enough—21 years—with precious little to show for it,” said the Daily News (May 28).

Mugabe’s plan to celebrate his 83rd birthday at the State House means that the days of press freedom are numbered if government fast-tracks its planned Freedom of Information Bill. The bill, whose details are still sketchy, would regulate the operations of all media in Zimbabwe with a stringent accreditation system. It would also bar foreign investment in the media and set up a Media Complaints Council.

“It is increasingly becoming clear that there is a tendency not to involve civil society in the drafting of legislation in Zimbabwe. Media stakeholders cannot afford not to have their input considered in the Freedom of Information Bill,” said Raashweat Mukundu, information officer for the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Zimbabwe chapter, in a paper published in May. “Media stakeholders expect the bill to open up the environment in which the media is operating rather than muzzle the same.”

However, judging by the recent statements of Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, it would be easy to think that the bill is already an act of parliament. Daily News editor Geoff Nyarota faces charges under a criminal defamation law because his paper reported on a lawsuit brought against Mugabe in a U.S. court for human-rights violations. Furthermore, Harare’s oppposition weekly Zimbabwe Independent had to sue for a court order barring Moyo from blocking the paper’s coverage of a suit against him by the Ford Foundation for misappropriation of funds.

“The crackdown on press a clumsy response to the role independent newspapers have played in exposing the villainy of a regime now attempting to beat the opposition and civil society into submission,” said the Zimbabwe Independent. (May 11). “It won’t happen....Zimbabweans have voted not only for democracy but also, in the pattern of their purchases, for a press that keeps them informed.”