Press Freedom

Zimbabwe: New Tactics, Same Game

Zimbabwe Press
A Zimbabwean voter reads a government-owned newspaper accusing the opposition of terrorism as he waits in line to vote in the March 9, 2002 presidential election (Photo: AFP).

As Zimbabwe joined the world in observing World Press Freedom Day on May 3, 2002, Zimbabwe’s independent journalists found nothing to celebrate.

As prominent figures from President Robert Mugabe’s government lined up to pontificate about the importance of a free press, journalists faced charges of contravening the euphemistically named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has described as placing “draconian” limits on the press.

One cannot speak of celebrating Press Freedom day in Zimbabwe without a healthy appreciation for irony. One of Mugabe’s first acts after being reelected on March 15 was to sign the new press law. In the weeks since, eight journalists have been arrested under the law.

Most recently, on April 30, Central Intelligence Division officers arrested and briefly detained two journalists from Harare’s pro-opposition Daily News, Lloyd Mudiwa and Collin Chiwanza. Early in the morning of April 1, Central Intelligence Division officers also arrested the Zimbabwe correspondent for London’s liberal Guardian, Andrew Meldrum. All three journalists had published stories—later proved to be inaccurate and retracted by both papers—about the beheading of an MDC supporter. On May 7, a judge dismissed charges of “abusing journalistic privilege” and “publishing false information” against Chiwanza, citing a lack of evidence. The other two journalists will stand trial for the same charges on May 22.

“The government…has been vindicated in imposing legislated regulation [on the press],” the editor’s of Harare’s government-owned Chronicle, wrote in a May 6 editorial. “As we mourn the death of journalism in the so-called opposition press, we appeal to scribes to desist from abusing journalistic privilege for the sake of international awards,” the editorial continued, in a pointed barb directed at Geoff Nyarota, editor of the Daily News, and recipient of numerous international press freedom prizes, including CPJ’s 2001 Press Freedom Award and UNESCO’s 2002 Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. The Daily News’ error led the Chronicle to take shots at the adjudicators of these awards. If they really mean well, the Chronicle’s editors wrote, “They, like the mandarins running the Pulitzer, should withdraw the award and expose Nyarota for the liar he is. Alternately, Nyarota should hand back all the so-called awards and retire from journalism with grace.”

Certainly Mugabe’s government and its apologists in the official press had reason to gloat about the Daily News’s bad information. But the paper has also been the target of less valid attacks from supporters of the ruling party—the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)—including the Jan. 28 bombing of their printing press. On April 15, Nyarota was arrested for publishing an April 10 story alleging irregularities in Zimbabwe’s March 15 election. Nyarota claimed he had Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation video footage to back up his claims.

Dumisani Muleya, chief reporter for Harare’s pro-opposition weekly, The Zimbabwe Independent, was also arrested on April 15, for publishing a story linking First Lady Grace Mugabe to a labor dispute. Two weeks earlier, on March 27, Zimbabwean journalist Peta Thornycroft, who works as a correspondent for London’s conservative Daily Telegraph and Voice of America radio, was arrested while investigating reports that ZANU-PF supporters in a rural town in southern Zimbabwe were attacking members of the opposition.

Apparently Zimbabwe’s minister of information and publicity, Jonathan Moyo, is making good on his promises to put an end to the opposition press’ attempts to “tarnish the government’s reputation.”

Reporting in Zimbabwe has always been a risky affair, especially for reporters with a reputation for what government considers rogue journalism. The new Information Act expands the risks independent journalists face beyond anything they’ve faced in the past. It has already been applied to justify the arrest and intimidation of independent journalists. These same journalists will now be forced to appear before the government-appointed Media Commission to be accredited for work. Many independent journalists fear they find themselves jobless as the ZANU-PF settles old scores now that Mugabe is safely back in power.

Mugabe and his cabinet insist that the law does not seek to punish the independent press, but rather seeks to instill ethics in the media and to protect public figures from libel.

But one independent Zimbabwean journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, saw the new law as nothing but a new tactic in Mugabe’s long battle to muzzle press criticism of his government. “It used to be that if you wrote or said something that upset the authorities or denigrated the head of state, you’d get a threatening phone call. Now you face fines of ZWD$100,000 [US$1,818] or up to two years in jail. The tactics have changed, but the goals are the same.”