Reporters Without Borders today said the 31 March legislative elections in Zimbabwe were "very clearly unfair" from the press freedom viewpoint, being marred by oppressive legislation, biased media coverage, almost systematic censorship of dissent and recurrent violent against critical journalists.
"We have identified at least seven grounds for saying press freedom does not exist in Zimbabwe in 2005, as in previous years," the organization said.
"Not only does Zimbabwe have one of Africa’s most draconian and authoritarian press laws but the state media, which are supposed to respect the democratic criteria established by the Southern Africa Development Community, clearly opted to provide biased and ill-intentioned coverage," Reporters Without Borders said.
"Abuse of authority and the repression of dissent are the rule in President Robert Mugabe’s country where, on the very day the elections took place under the closest surveillance, the police were hounding journalists whose work irritates the authorities.
Reporters Without Borders added: "In view of the repressive apparatus contrary to all democratic standards and the prevailing climate for the independent press that is one of the worst in Africa, the 31 March legislative election were very clearly unfair."
1. Zimbabwe has had an extremely repressive media law since 2002 called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which flouts press freedom principles. It set up a Media and Information Commission (MIC) which is closely controlled by the government, has the power of life or death over the independent press, and has banned foreign journalists from residing in Zimbabwe. Under an amendment approved at the end of 2004, journalists can be imprisoned for working without MIC accreditation.
2. Coverage of the election campaign by state-owned broadcast and print media clearly favoured the ruling Zanu-PF party. The Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ), a Harare-based independent watchdog, repeatedly denounced the blatant bias in their reporting of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and the priority systematically given to coverage of the ruling party’s activities.
3. The Zimbabwean government chose which media were allowed to cover the legislative elections, arbitrarily excluding a number of major international news media "guilty" of criticizing the government in the past. Journalists from the privately-owned South African radio stations Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and several British newspapers were all refused accreditation.
4. The broadcasts of the privately-owned, London-based SW Radio Africa, which employs Zimbabwean journalists living in exile, were jammed from 7 March onwards from a military base with the help of Chinese technology.
5. Journalists Toby John Harden and Julian Paul Simmons of the London-based Sunday Telegraph were arrested near a polling station 40 km from the capital, Harare, on election day. They were accused of working without accreditation, and then of having expired tourist visas. Fredrik Sperling, a journalist with the Swedish public television broadcaster Sveriges Television (SVT), was also arrested on election day and expelled after filming at a farm whose owners were evicted and replaced by a Mugabe relative.
6. Five weeks before the elections, four Zimbabwean journalists working for different international news media - Cornelius Nduna, Jan Raath, Tsvangirai Mkwazhi and Angus Shaw - were forced to go into exile to escape the threat of imminent arrest on a range of grounds including spying, lack of accreditation and possession of sensitive information.
7. On 25 February, the MIC ordered the closure of another independent newspaper, this time one that had only existed for two months. The privately-owned Weekly Times was based in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, and specialized in development issues. Its first issue included an interview with Bishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo in which he criticized Mugabe’s failure to repent for the massacre of 20,000 innocent civilians in Gukurahundi in the 1980s. It was the fourth independent newspaper to be closed for political reasons in less than two years, following the Daily News (Zimbabwe’s most widely read daily), the Daily News On Sunday and The Tribune. Despite a supreme court ruling on 14 March authorizing the Daily News to resume publishing, the MIC has still not responded to its request to register, and no newspaper can operate without being registered.