Press Freedom in Africa

Zimbabwe: Permission to Publish

Zimbabwe journalists on trial
Zimbabwean journalists Lloyd Mudiwa (L), and Collin Chiwanza (R), of Harare's Daily News, along with U.S. journalist Andrew Meldrum (C), of London's Guardian, wait outside a Harare magistrate's court holding cells May 2, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

In Zimbabwe, a new noose is tightening around independent journalists and media organizations as the government steps up its controls on the media in the name of media ethics and "fostering freedom of expression." In an extraordinary government gazette published June 15 under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the government announced that all media outlets had one day to apply for registration with the Media and Information Commission, which can refuse to register applicants. The members of this commission were hand picked by Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, a close associate of President Robert Mugabe. Rejected applicants would lose the right to work in the media.

The Zimbabwe government’s initial call for greater professionalism in the press has devolved into a witch-hunt, at best. In the weeks leading up to Zimbabwe’s hotly disputed presidential election on March 9-10, 2002, Mugabe loyalists branded Zimbabwe’s private press as unpatriotic peddlers of lies and “terrorists.”

Independent journalists represented by the Independent Journalists’ Association of Zimbabwe (IJAZ) quickly convened meetings on how best to respond to the new regulations.

Harare’s privately owned The Daily News (June 15) slammed the new regulations as a sign of coming disaster, likening them to the decrees that put Zimbabwe’s white commercial farmers out of business. “Perhaps no one understands better the issue of deception than the country’s commercial farmers. The next to taste this bitter pill could be the media,” the paper’s editors wrote. “Like the commercial farmers, one of the dilemmas of registering is that it presupposes an acceptance to subject oneself to [the commission]. That, however, could be akin to walking into an ambush. There will be very little scope for alternatives. Once you are in, you can’t get out,” the editors warned, adding that by registering with the commission, any media organization would be agreeing, in advance, to any penalties the commission chose to administer.

In May 2002, for example, 11 independent journalists were arrested, some twice. So The Daily News’ editors spoke for many independent journalists when they wrote that the private press should demand fair treatment from the Media and Information Commission—“otherwise, as happened to the farmers, the media could find itself being closed down for what the commission deems ‘offences’ or ‘falsehoods,’ resulting from selective application of the law.”

Foreign publications’ Zimbabwe correspondents will be required to pay a US$50 registration fee and a US$1000 accreditation fee. Foreign journalists will cough up US$100 for temporary accreditation and US$500 for accreditation. Individuals or organizations seeking to establish representative offices for foreign media will now be required to pay a US$2000 application fee and US$10,000 for registration.

The only people who will be able to operate at ease are local journalists working for the local media as well as local freelancers. Local journalists will pay an application fee of US$18 and US$90 for accreditation. Freelance journalists will pay US$5 for application and US$55 for accreditation.

Zimbabwe’s government, which has long been intolerant of foreign media, especially the British Broadcasting Service (BBC), has barred several foreign media organizations from operating in the country. Almost all BBC correspondents in Zimbabwe have been deported. Mercedes Sayagues, a correspondent for Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian, made headlines in 2001 after she was forced out of the country for her critical coverage of Mugabe’s government.

The government is also asking private media companies to pay for the very instrument many fear will be used to curtail their freedom of speech: Independent newspapers now must pay 0.5 percent of their audited annual gross profits to a Media and Information Fund.

Tafatona Mahoso, the chairman of the commission, whom many view as a government apologist, said Zimbabwe’s registrar of companies would handle the registration of media houses.

But the Zimbabwe’s privately owned press (no private television or radio stations remain) is concerned about the implications of such registration and accreditation on press freedoms and is seeking legal advice on how to battle the new regulations. On June 13, editors of the country’s fledging independent press formed the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum to protect their rights.

The move comes in response to the commission’s insistence that all editors should succumb to its scrutiny. Editors privately say the order amounts to a legal gagging of independent newspaper organizations and their journalists.

Defending the commission’s purported raison d’être, Phillip Magwaza, political editor for Harare’s government-owned Herald, wrote, “It is amazing how journalism standards have gone to the dogs” (June 15). He was referring to press coverage of the cost of Mugabe’s hotel bills during his trip to Rome for the June 10-13 World Food Summit. “We now see newspapers groveling [sic] over the President's hotel bill incurred on state business,” Magwaza wrote. “That is indicative of gutter journalism.”

A lengthy editorial in the June 9 edition of the opposition weekly Standard saw the new regulations as part of a vengeful plot hatched by Jonathan Moyo. Regardless, the editors vowed, “No matter how often [Moyo] resorts to his grotesque Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, no matter how many lawsuits he files against privately owned newspapers, and no matter how many pseudo-journalists on the lunatic fringe he appoints to his media commission, we still will not give in…. So no, Jonathan Moyo, we will not sing the praises of the last 20 years because that would be untruthful. The independent press will defy [Moyo], his crass legislation, and his cronies. Independent journalists will not seek registration because that would mean acceding to the rest of the draconian [act]. It is also most improbable that any self-respecting proprietor or publisher will seek registration for his newspapers under the monster created by Moyo and his cronies.”

The Standard’s editors further complained that the act placed journalists in the intolerable quandry of having to choose between respect for the law and respect for journalistic standards but found hope in the idea that the Internet and satellite communications now make it more difficult to control access to information and media.

In his June 17 weekly column for the government-owned Sunday Mail, Media and Information Commission Chairman Tafatona Mahoso countered that Zimbabwe must defend against the lies propagated by the “neo-colonial” media: “Journalists often boast that the ‘pen is mightier than the sword,’ and that the ‘barrel of the pen is a thousand times smaller than the barrel of the gun, yet a million times more effective….’ Why was it then, that the same journalists who boasted of their craft as being more powerful than military science refused to see the need for discipline, responsibility, and control in mass media and mass communication? How can the pen boast of being mightier than the sword without accepting even 1 percent of the controls that govern sword power?”

A May 13 editorial in Bulawayo’s government-owned daily Chronicle expressed similar views: “We look forward to seeing the law take its full course and hope that those caught on the wrong side of it will be thoroughly punished…. We know that most problems Zimbabwe is facing today are the result of lies peddled by the opposition media and commercial farmers in order to sabotage government programs.”