Zimbabwe's Embattled Independent Press

Controversial Press Bill Shelved


Namibian journalists protest Zimbabwe's crackdown on press freedom, Windhoek, Jan. 18, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
On Jan. 17, the United States joined the European Union in threatening Zimbabwe with sanctions targeted at President Robert Mugabe and his coterie of supporters. U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters from Harare's Financial Gazette that "the policies that the Mugabe government has taken have led the country to economic and political rack and ruin, and it's time for them to think about the future of their country, the future of their people, and focus on democracy. That would include establishing a system of free and fair elections…" The threats come after the Zimbabwean parliament passed a series of measures aimed at stifling criticism of President Robert Mugabe ahead of Zimbabwe's March presidential elections, and on the eve of the passage of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, which would ban foreign correspondents from Zimbabwe and prescribe jail sentences for journalists who criticize Mugabe.

If Zimbabwe's parliament passes the bill into law, popular Zimbabwean minister of information and publicity Jonathan Moyo may soon settle scores with what he deems an unpatriotic press once and for all.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, speaking to Zambia's government-run television news on Jan. 16, laid out the proposed rules most clearly: "No journalist will practice in Zimbabwe without being accredited, whether local or foreign. Foreign journalists will be allowed to cover specific events, however, for a limited period. Otherwise they must employ local journalists." Crackdowns on local journalists attract less international censure than crackdowns on foreign journalists.

Voting on the bill, which was originally introduced for parliamentary debate in August 2001, was postponed until a media ethics committee probe could investigate the procedures of the news media in Zimbabwe. When the bill was reintroduced on Jan. 16, Muabe's government had to postpone debate on the bill again after the legal affairs committee found many of its provisions unconstitutional.

"ZANU-PF [the acronym for Mugabe's political party] Chickens Out," crowed independent Harare newspaper The Daily News, which has long battled government censorship and harassment, in its top headline on Jan. 17.

Zimbabwe's parliament again considered the bill on Jan. 22, again postponing the final decision to an unspecified later date.

Journalists from Zimbabwe's independent newspapers harbor deep fears that, given the growing intolerance for the nonofficial press ahead of March's presidential elections, the new bill could act as a sledgehammer on the free press.

In an opinion piece for the Daily News, Dingani Moyo [no relation to the government minister] wrote that it was a pity that government perceived journalists working for the private press as saboteurs, preferring its own "patriotic" press (Nov. 16, 2001). "An independent press is necessary for any truly democratic set up because it gives people the platform for free and unfettered expression. Just how long the privately owned publications will continue under the current dispensation is anybody's guess," Moyo wrote.

On Jan. 10, Representatives from the four main media unions in Zimbabwe met in Harare to discuss strategies for combating the bill should it be passed. Union spokesman Zoe Titus told the South African Press Association that "the laws are patently illegal and design to deprive the media of its constitutional right to freedom of expression." Titus urged Zimbabwean journalists to ignore the law and continue working as usual.