Mugabe's Attempt to Muzzle the Press

Zimbabwe: Journalists Stand Up to Press Law

President Robert Mugabe addresses Zimbabwe after being sworn in to office, March 17, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Zimbabwe’s independent journalists have not yet resigned themselves to a professional life muzzled by President Robert Mugabe’s regime. After failing to stop Parliament from approving the euphemistically named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act—which gives the government greater control over who can work as a journalist in Zimbabwe—last year, Zimbabwean journalists are launching a new series of legal challenges to the controversial legislation, calling it unconstitutional.

Abel Mutsakani, President of the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe, told Harare’s independent Financial Gazette that the first legal challenge to the new act might come "sometime in early April."

The director of the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Sarah Chiumbu, says the organization is putting the last touches on the challenge and is ready to battle with the Zimbabwean government over provisions in the act, which Mugabe signed into law on Jan. 31, weeks before his installation for another six-year term as president.

Chiumbu told the Daily News (March 21) that unspecified donors had donated Z$1 million (US$19,000) to set up a Media Defense Fund (MDF) that would be used to finance court challenges to the new media law. According to The Gweru Times (independent), MISA has also been helping to organize a pool of lawyers "to protect freedom of expression and of media wherever it is threatened."

In its April 2 editorial, Harare’s Daily News called on journalists to fight the act to the bitter end. "Journalists in Zimbabwe must continue to promote the free flow of any and all information among the people upon which citizens and foreigners can make informed decisions. Every journalist worth their salt must feel morally outraged that the government can be so uncouth as to try to muzzle them while protesting to the outside world that there is freedom of the press in the country," the paper’s editors wrote.

Civic activist Takura Zhangazha agrees. In an opinion piece from the same edition of the Daily News, he urged civil society groups to rally behind Zimbabwe’s independent journalists, and to establish a united front against the law. "In such a strategic alliance, it would be easier to institute legal proceedings on the constitutionality of specific clauses within the act," Zhangazha wrote. "The alliance would also be a critical information dissemination point about how the act affects the functions individual civic organizations, along with assistance as to how to get around the act’s [provisions]."

More than 36 amendments were made to the law after Zimbabwe’s Parliamentary Legal Committee concurred with local and international monitoring bodies that found most of its clauses unconstitutional. Independent Zimbabwean journalists say they feel that even those changes were cosmetic, and did not take into account most of their concerns. They cite clauses in the law that allow the government to ban newspapers, jail journalists for writing articles which portray the government in a negative light, and ban foreigners from owning media companies in Zimbabwe.