A Death Knell for Zimbabwe's Press

Cover of Zimbabwe's Daily News

Zimbabwe's Daily News journalists issued and distributed a special edition of their newspaper on December 5, 2003, two months after they were shut down. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP-Getty Images)

"Here lies the private press that defended press freedom to the last drop of ink."

A fitting epitaph for Zimbabwe's independent press should President Robert Mugabe succeed in closing down what is left of the country's privately-owned newspapers.

Ahead of parliamentary elections next March — which Mugabe's ruling Zanu PF party is prepared to fight and even shed blood to win — the government is hoping to cow all opponents, if not eliminate them altogether.

In 2002, Zimbabwe's infamous minister of information and publicity, Jonathan Moyo, accused the pro-opposition press of tarnishing Mugabe's administration. He has since repeatedly threatened to deal with all "mercenary" journalists, a term he reserves for those who freelance for the international press. With the closing of the Daily News in 2003, and the Tribune last month, the threat is serious enough to warrant vigilance on the part of independent journalists.

"We will not allow Bush's boys in our midst ... The situation in Zimbabwe today calls for principled actions without fear or favour, and without succumbing to any threats or intimidation. Mercenaries of any kind, whether carrying the sword or the pen, must and will be exposed and they will suffer full consequences of the law," Moyo thundered in a front-page story carried by the Bulawayo-based Chronicle (March 9, 2004) adding that "No media organization, certainly not Zimpapers, will be forced to employ Bush's and Blair's media mercenaries whose mission is to destroy Zimbabwe from within. That will not happen."

Zimpapers, founded in 1980, is a government-controlled company that publishes The Herald, The Sunday Mail, The Chronicle, The Manica Post and The Sunday News.

The pro-government Herald conducted its own witch hunt earlier this year dismissing what it called media "mercenaries" for threatening national security. The journalists lost their jobs when it was discovered that they had freelanced for Studio 7, a radio station launched in 2003 by Voice of America (VOA). This discovery only heightened the government's suspicion of journalists, especially those in the independent press.

Writing in the pro-opposition, Financial Gazette (March 11, 2004) journalist Brian Mangwende asked if the government was making good its controversial pledge to deal with its perceived enemies in the media.

"And the ongoing crackdown at Zimpapers, the biggest newspaper company in the country where heads have started rolling, dovetails with that new thrust. While media observers were unanimous that the move at Zimpapers could be a veiled attempt to cow media practitioners and force journalists to toe a certain political line ahead of the watershed 2005 parliamentary election, the government is adamant that the concerned journalists' conduct was inconsistent with the terms of their contracts," said Mangwende.

Zimpapers also fired Matthew Takaona, acting news editor of the Sunday Mail and president of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, for allegedly addressing reporters from the Daily News. Then it fired Robson Sharuko and Tendai Ndemera, who were on the sports desk, and Rex Mphisa, a feature reporter, for filing stories with VOA – an action defended by the Media and Information Commission (MIC).

"The other serious problem is that of national interest and national security. The VOA is an arm of the US State Department, which is on record as seeking to overthrow the government of Zimbabwe through unconstitutional means and (that are also) illegal under the United Nations Charter," the MIC said.

Mugabe's government began its assault on the independent media in 2002 with the reshaping of the colonial Law and Order Maintenance Act — used by the former Rhodesian government to suppress nationalists — into the now virulent Public Order and Security Act (POSA). The law makes it an offence to criticize the president and gives extra powers to the police. Several journalists have been arrested for covering meetings deemed illegal under POSA.

The government also enacted the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which bans foreign journalists and requires local journalists to obtain yearly accreditation from a government-picked MIC. Unable to receive accreditation, many independent journalists have lost their jobs in a punitive settling of old political scores.

AIPPA also makes it an offence to "spread rumours or falsehoods" or publish "unauthorised" reports from governmental bodies. More than 30 Zimbabwean journalists and international correspondents have been harassed, arrested and charged for flouting various sections of the Act. Zimbabwe, unlike South Africa, does not guarantee the freedom of the press in its constitution.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) expressed concern about how the pro-government media was being used to vilify members of the judiciary who made court rulings that were unfavourable to the government.

"ZLHR is also gravely concerned at the continued use of the Herald and other state-controlled public media as instruments to attack members of the judiciary who in the course of their duties as judicial officers make rulings that may not be favourable to certain quarters within the state," the ZLHR said in a public statement recently.

The government denies that it sought to punish the independent press with AIPPA. Instead, the government claims, the law instills media ethics and restores the dignity of individuals, especially those government officials long disparaged by the "unpatriotic press."

Analysts interviewed by the Financial Gazette (March 11, 2004) decried the plight of the press in Zimbabwe, which has gradually lost its freedom ahead of the crucial 2005 elections, where access to information is sure to be a decisive factor.

"The media can influence public thinking so those who are against democracy will obviously want to destroy it. The government believes anything divergent to them should be thoroughly punished and that is what is happening," said political commentator Lovemore Madhuku.

Mugabe's government shows little tolerance for criticism, either from the independent press or the pro-government press. The death of free expression in Zimbabwe draws near. So, too, does the death of democracy and accountability.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Julius Dawu.