The country headed since 1980 by the now octogenarian Robert Mugabe is one of most vicious on the continent in its treatment of journalists. Surveillance, threats, imprisonment, censorship blackmail, abuse of power and denial of justice are all brought to bear to keep firm control over the news. Things have got so bad that the Zimbabwean justice system, zealously guarding its prerogatives and tired of not being respected, has started to disavow the government and its agencies.
Keeping absolute control over the news, whatever the cost, is an obvious obsession of Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe. Ever since 2002, when the government pushed through one of the most Kafkaesque press laws on the continent, closed down the leading daily in the country and jammed opposition radio, it has never let up pressure against the few surviving independent voices in the country. Thanks to the dreaded Media and Information Commission (MIC), it was able to crackdown in 2006 on privately-owned weeklies Zimbabwe Independent, Financial Gazette (FinGaz) and the Voice of the People (VOP). The intelligence services made themselves responsible for all other forms of injustice meted out to Zimbabwe’s journalists.
In line with its statutory responsibility, the media regulation body, the MIC, which tightly controls the media for the government, every year sets about re-examining newspaper licences and accreditations for journalists. Ready to use blackmail, from the first week of January 2006, the MIC suspended the publication licence of FinGaz, unless it carried a denial of an article which it published the previous week about how the commission, after deciding to award a licence to the owner of the defunct Daily News, finally gave way to pressure from the intelligence services and reversed its decision. Likewise, on 2 February, the MIC finally renewed the accreditation of journalists on the Zimbabwe Independent, only after forcing the newspaper to publish a correction of an article which had appeared the previous week.
The major preoccupation of the MIC, chaired for life by Tafataona Mahoso, an old comrade of the head of state, is clearly not the publication of the truth or the protection of journalists. His stance is common knowledge. Besides, the Zimbabwean justice system has recognised that the Commission is incapable of judging certain cases fairly. Accordingly, on 8 February the Harare High Court, quashed an MIC decision to refuse a licence to the publishing house of the Daily News and its supplement the Daily News on Sunday, banned since 2003. The paper’s lawyers had gone to court, arguing that the MIC chairman had refused to withdraw in despite of a 2005 decision by the Supreme Court which had ruled, for the first time, that he was biased. The High Court judge in Harare said that the MIC decision had effectively been biased, under the influence of the intelligence services, and that the Commission should consequently review the licence application. Boosted by these two legal decisions in its favour, the newspaper’s publishing house on 28 March challenged the information and publicity minister Tichaona Jokonya, so as to force the government to decide on allowing publication, in the place of the disqualified MIC. But the Zimbabwean government used every means from legal quibbles to law breaking with impunity to delay making a decision. And, in fact, no decision has yet been made.
The MIC has therefore calmly continued its surveillance and punishment of discordant voices. Its weapons of choice are: “calls for investigation” into a particular journalist, threats to revoke licences or accreditation and denouncing journalists to the police. Police raided one of the distribution points in Harare of the privately-owned daily The Zimbabwean on 3 October. Police took away a copy of the paper’s import authorisation as well as copies of the previous week’s paper. The paper, one of the country’s last independent dailies is published in the UK and printed in South Africa, to get round draconian legislation on the private press, of which the MIC is the tireless watchdog. The previous week, the paper carried an article in which military sources spoke out against corruption within the Zimbabwean police. A few days earlier, on 1st October, Tafataona Mahoso called on the information minister to investigate the Zimbabwean Union of Journalists (ZUJ), on the grounds that it was fomenting an “anti-Zimbabwe lobby”. He claimed to be in possession of a document drawn up by the ZUJ, asking for funds from the Netherlands embassy and from UNESCO. At the same time, Mahoso also made an order for an investigation of the ZUJ secretary in Mashonaland West province, Nunurai Jena, accused of working for US public radio Voice of America (VOA), based in Washington, without obtaining permission from the MIC. On 28 September, the Commission virulently attacked the Zimbabwean branch of the press freedom organisation the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe), which he said, was backing “regime change”.
Resistance from the justice system
But the Zimbabwean justice system is increasingly resisting the abuse of power by the government. On 25 September, the president of the Harare court decided to refuse the prosecution a third adjournment in the trial of privately-owned radio VOP. “This is turning into a circus”, he said, before deciding to drop charges against the radio’s ten defendants. Board members Arnold Tsunga, Millie Phiri, Isabella Matambanadzo, David Masunda, Nhlanhla Ngwenya, Lawrence Chibwe and John Masuku, had been arrested in January 2006 for “possessing and using broadcast equipment without permission”. Radio staffers Maria Nyanyiwa, Takunda Chigwanda and Nyasha Bosha, were held for four days in December 2005 after a police search of the radio’s offices in the centre of the capital.
As a result, when legal recourse will not answer, the Zimbabwean government calls on the army and in particular the powerful Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). Unable to have foreign-based staff arrested, from the second half of June the government ordered jamming of the VOA programme Studio 7 beamed into Zimbabwe. They are now blocked with a rattling sound, identical to that which has been jamming shortwave programmes since February 2005 on privately-owned SW Radio Africa based in London and of Amsterdam-based VOP, since September 2005. According to information obtained by Reporters Without Borders this jamming has been made possible by the presence in Harare of Chinese experts invited to train their Zimbabwean telecommunications and radio-communications counterparts under an economic and technical cooperation agreement signed between the two countries.