Paris, 28 June 2005
Dear Mr President,
Reporters Without Borders, a worldwide press freedom organisation, would like to put before you an anguished appeal from independent journalists working in Zimbabwe.
We have taken this step of contacting you since Zimbabwe has recently sunk even further into repression. A new law is to come into effect in the next few days that will provide for prison sentences of up to 20 years for publishing "false information". Zimbabwean law has since 2002 already been one of the most draconian for the press in Africa and the country’s legislative arsenal grows from one month to the next and becomes ever more terrifying. President Robert Mugabe has been making enthusiastic use of it, since there is nothing to stop him.
For several years now, his government has rained down on his country’s independent press every means of repression at his disposal. Police brutality, secret service harassment, heavy punishments handed down by an easily persuadable justice system and bolstered by draconian laws, have become the daily lot of journalists who do not sing the regime’s praises. The Daily News, the quality of which you know and which our organisation awarded the 2003 Reporters Without Borders/Fondation de France press freedom prize, has still not been allowed to reappear, even though the Supreme Court recognised that the ban against it was illegal. These past weeks, journalists who were working for it in 2003 have all in turn been receiving court summonses to answer before the courts for this "unforgivable crime" in the eyes of Robert Mugabe of not being submissive in reporting on reality. They face two years of their lives in prison, in jails that former MP Roy Bennett, released on 28 June after nine months, described as "hell" in which his warders gave him as his sole item of clothing, a uniform covered in human excrement. They will know their fate on 12 October.
But oppression of Zimbabwe’s journalists is not limited to those on the Daily News. Almost every day our organisation receives new information about a journalist threatened, harassed, imprisoned, expelled, beaten or pushed into unemployment. You know the reality of imprisonment, the real deprivation of freedom that is hidden behind abstract judicial terms. You know then that beyond these articles of the law, men and women suffer as you suffered for 27 years because of a racist regime whose favourite weapons were, apart from the gun, injustice and spreading fear. Today these same weapons are being used at the borders of your country, between Beitbridge and Kanyemba.
Despite our appeals and those of other international organisations, despite repeated requests from governments that are allies of South Africa, the South African President Thabo Mbeki refuses to condemn Robert Mugabe’s treatment of his people. Beyond your personal courage, it was internal and international struggles and international campaigning that allowed you to leave prison on 11 February 1990, after judges had sentenced you to life imprisonment. Today, Reporters Without Borders appeals to you, to your authority on the African continent and the respect that you inspire to help Zimbabwe. We solemnly ask you to do your utmost so that Zimbabwean journalists can at least carry out their work without fear of the brutality of a predatory state. Help us to prevent Zimbabwe being an example of brutal and iniquitous repression.
I trust you will give our case your careful consideration.
Robert Ménard, Secretary General
On 2 June 2005, Zimbabwe’s official newspaper published an amendment to Chapter 9.23 of the criminal code, with the approval of President Robert Mugabe. The new law, approved by parliament at the end of 2004, provides for longer terms of imprisonment and higher fines than the anti-freedom laws already in force since 2002, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). The law made it illegal for "anyone inside or outside Zimbabwe to publish or communicate to any other person a statement which is wholly or materially false with the intention or realising that there is real risk or a possibility of any of the following:
Inciting or promoting public disorder or public violence or endangering public safety.
Adversely affecting the defence or economic interests of Zimbabwe.
Undermining public confidence in a law enforcement agency, the Prison Service or the Defence Forces of Zimbabwe.
Interfering with, disrupting or interrupting any essential service."
An offence will still have been committed even if the publication or communication does not result in any of the envisaged scenarios.
A journalist sentenced under Section 31(a) of the new law is liable to imprisonment of up to 20 years or a fine of 2.5 million Zimbabwe dollars (about 210 euros). The date on which the law come into force will be published shortly. The Justice Ministry said that this publication could happen "at any time from now".
Since 2002, Zimbabwe journalists were already under threat of long prison sentences under existing laws. Section 15 of POSA provides for example for a prison sentence of five years and a fine of 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars for publishing "incorrect information". Section 80 of the AIPPA, sets out a prison term of two years and 400,000 Zimbabwe dollars fine for publishing "false information".