The coverage that Zimbabwe’s state media are giving the main opposition party during the campaign for parliamentary elections on 31 March is clearly unfair, Reporters Without Borders said today, at the same condemning a threat by the head of the government’s press regulatory body, the MIC, to impose sanctions on a new weekly, The Zimbabwean, on the grounds that it is a "propaganda tool."
"It is now evident that the legislative elections will take place in climate of intimidation and censorship," the press freedom organization said.
"There will clearly be no compliance with the democratic criteria established by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the African Union’s treaties," the organization continued. "Robert Mugabe’s government is violating the principles of free expression with impunity and Zimbabweans will pay the price. It is time the countries of southern Africa stopped looking passively on as one of their members sinks into the dark."
With the election campaign already officially under way, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - the main opposition party, with 50 representatives in parliament - is extremely handicapped by the lack of coverage it is getting from the state media, when not being actively disparaged.
In reply to an MDC letter asking the state media to cover its activities, Pikirayi Deketeke, the editor of the state-owned daily The Herald, wrote to MDC secretary-general Welshman Ncube that it "would offer no political party special access" to the newspaper. The request had nothing to do with the traditional state media policy of offering special, free political broadcasts during general elections, he said.
The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ), an independent Harare-based watchdog, reported that, during the week of 14 to 20 February, 19 of the 28 articles about the election campaign in the government press defended the ruling Zanu-PF party and the other nine disparaged the MDC. During the week of 21 to 27 February, 58 of the 66 articles about the election campaign were devoted to Zanu-PF.
The editor in chief of Newsnet, a propaganda branch of the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holding (ZBH), told the MDC by letter that it would be granted two interviews, on 7 and 18 March, that it could take part in a debate on 14 March, and that there would be coverage of an MDC meeting on 25 March.
ZBH also offered the MDC a total of 91 minutes of air time for the broadcasting of spots lasting no more than 60 seconds each, but the MDC would have to pay for these in cash. The privately- owned weekly, The Zimbabwe Independent, calculated that an electoral spot would cost 3.7 million dollars (460 euros) each time it was broadcast in prime time, a sizeable sum in Zimbabwe.
On 3 October 2004, then information minister Jonathan Moyo had said the MDC would be refused access to the state media during the election campaign. "Until we have a loyal opposition, it will be impossible for it to access the public media," Moyo said.
Threats against The Zimbabwean
Tafataona Mahoso, the chairman of the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC), has meanwhile threatened sanctions against The Zimbabwean, a privately-owned weekly that is published in London and distributed in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The state-owned The Herald quoted Mahoso on 7 March as saying it was a "propaganda tool" supported by "secret funds in Europe and North America." The Zimbabwean was created by Wilf Mbanga, the exiled founder of the leading independent Daily News.
In the article in The Herald, Mahoso and the reporter took particular issue with the fact that the most recent issue of The Zimbabwean included an insert published by the British parliament’s lower house praising the newspaper’s management. The Herald quoted Mahoso as describing this as "unprecedented" and likening the British parliamentarians to South Africa’s former apartheid regime.
The article did not specify what sanctions might be taken against The Zimbabwean, simply noting that the MIC last month said it "would not hesitate to take the necessary steps to stop those who abuse journalism by using secret funding to produce products intended to undermine national and sovereign publishers who are making an honest living by informing their audiences."
In January, Mahoso threatened to close the privately-owned Weekly Times just one week after it brought out its first issue. The newspaper’s licence was withdrawn just a few weeks later, on 25 February, on the grounds that its owners had made a false statement and failed to reveal certain facts. Mahoso claimed that the newspaper tricked him when it registered its licence by hiding certain aspects of its editorial line. According to its statutes, it is a privately-owned news weekly focussing on development issues.