After years of hounding the independent press, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is increasingly establishing itself as one of the African countries that places the most curbs on its population’s right to information, Reporters Without Borders said today.
The press freedom organisation said it was particularly alarmed by information minister Jonathan Moyo’s warning during a provincial tour on 3 October that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) will be denied access to the state media although general elections are to be held next year. "Unless and until we have a loyal opposition, it will not be possible for them to access the public media," Moyo said.
Reporters Without Borders said: "A leading member of the government who has gone so far to describe foreign journalists as ’terrorists’ has yet again shown that Zimbabwe is now in a phase of all-out censorship."
"By banning the MDC from access to the public media, the information minister has demonstrated that the official press has been reduced to the role of government mouthpiece," the organisation continued. "As for the few Zimbabwean journalists bold enough to show signs of independence, they are systematically hounded by the police or judicial apparatus even if, by peacefully resisting a dictatorial government, they achieve some victories which we salute."
Reporters Without Borders said it called on South Africa, one of the last countries still able to talk to the Zimbabwean government, to ask it to at least respect its own international undertakings.
Harare has ratified the protocol on the principles and guidelines governing democratic elections in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Yet the minister’s announcement violates article 2.1.5 of the protocol, guaranteeing ’equal opportunity for all political parties to access the public media’.
"It goes without saying that banishing the opposition from the public media, threatening remarks and judicial harassment of the independent press constitute serious violations of Zimbabwe’s public undertakings towards its partners in southern Africa," Reporters Without Borders said.
Hounded for saying the truth
President Mugabe’s right-hand man, Moyo, was already responsible for drafting a draconian press law in 2002. In May of this year, he described foreign correspondents as "terrorists" and then got the daily The Herald to dismiss three of its journalists who also worked for Voice of America (VOA) on the grounds that they posed a "national security threat."
On 1 October, Moyo made threatening remarks about journalists who contribute to foreign news media and who, he said, were "ready to be used by colonial forces to destroy the country by reporting lies".
Zimbabwe’s independent press meanwhile struggles to continue publishing although the authorities do everything possible to reduce it to silence.
After interminable procedures were used to force the Daily News to stop publishing, the newspaper fought back with a judicial guerrilla war it seems close to winning. Now it is the privately-owned Zimbabwe Independent’s turn to be attacked by Moyo. Three of its journalists - editor Vincent Kahiya, reporter Augustine Mukaro and publishing group director Raphael Kumalo - were detained on 23 September and accused of abusing press privileges.
They were held for a day after the newspaper ran a story on 30 July saying the two court assessors in the trial of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had asked for the verdict to be delayed so that they could give their opinion on Judge Paddington Garwe’s decision. Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC, is accused of plotting to assassinate President Mugabe. The verdict has indeed been postponed until 15 October.
Kahiya, along with reporters Dumisani Muleya and Itai Dzamara and former managing editor Iden Wetherell, was previously arrested on 10 January and held for several days on Moyo’s orders after running a story about President Mugabe’s "grabbing" of an Air Zimbabwe jet for a holiday and business trip to Asia.
Moyo was publicly criticised by eminent Zimbabwean lawyer Edith Mushore, who told a magistrate’s court on 1 October that he had been "overzealous" in his reaction to the Air Zimbabwe report and could have caused an "embarrassment to the president." Moyo effectively confirmed that the report was true but had insisted that, if not "defamatory," it was at the very least "blasphemous."