Scheming by Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) is killing off the few remaining independent news media while the government-controlled Media Information Commission (MIC) continues to use obligatory press accreditation as way to pressure journalists in an entirely unacceptable fashion, Reporters Without Borders said today.
“The infiltration of the last privately-owned media by the intelligence agencies has had a disastrous impact on pluralism,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Unable to live with a free press, casting suspicion on the publications they manipulate and paying little heed to they journalists they employ, the intelligence agencies have just helped to undermine the already moribund press even further.”
The press freedom organisation added: “As for the discredited, government-dominated MIC, it continues to practice an utterly unacceptable form of blackmail on the last journalists not to have fled the country, intimidating them and threatening them with unemployment.”
Two recent episodes have highlighted the disastrous political and financial consequences of CIO meddling in the media. The editor of the privately-owned weekly Financial Gazette (FinGaz), Sunsleey Chamunorwa, was denied entry to his office on 13 March on the grounds that he had been dismissed. FinGaz chief executive Jacob Chisese, a CIO ally, announced to the shocked staff that changes were to be made to the newspaper but refused for the time being to say who would replace Chamunorwa. The MIC last month refused to renew the newspaper’s licence - without which no publication can operate - until it revealed the name of its owner.
The newspaper has in fact belonged to the CIO since 2001 as a result of a financial operation using central bank governor Gideon Gono as a cover. “It held out until today because Gono refused to bow to pressure from the ruling party and the CIO, which complained about its editorial line and claimed it was harming the party and favouring the [opposition] Movement for Democratic Change,” a source within the newspaper said on condition of anonymity.
Chamunorwa received a visit from CIO members, who ordered him to change his editorial line, the same source said. Presidential spokesman George Charamba wrote a column in the government daily The Herald on 10 December in which he warned Chamunorwa about his news coverage. “Tick, tock, tick, tock, the clock ticks,” he wrote.
Tichaonoa Chifamba, the head of the company that owns the Daily Mirror and its Sunday version, the Sunday Mirror, announced to his staff on 7 March that they would be forced to stop publishing for lack of funds. The CIO took control of these two newspapers in 2004 after ousting the man who founded them, Ibbo Mandaza. Thereafter sales plummeted to as low as 2,000 copies a day and it accumulated 500 million Zimbabwean dollars (about 1.5 million euros) in debts. The journalists, who had not been paid for the past month, are now out of work.
At the same time, journalists are threatened with being stripped of the ability to work legally if they displease the government. After freelancer Nunurayi Jena submitted his accreditation to the MIC for renewal on 31 December, as all Zimbabwean journalists now have to do every year, he was told on 23 February that the MIC needed to examine his file more closely because his accreditation for 2006 was granted in a “fraudulent” manner. Journalists who work without MIC accreditation can be sent to prison for two years under a draconian law called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).
Journalists have recently been convicted for working without MIC accreditation for the first time since the AIPPA was adopted in 2002. Three Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation journalists - regional bureau chief Andrew Neshamba, reporter Trymore Zvidzai and cameraman William Gumbo - and Peter Moyo, a Zimbabwean journalist working for South Africa-based E-TV, were arrested on 5 February in Mutare, the capital of the eastern province of Manicaland, where they had gone to cover illegal diamond mining in the village of Marange.
After being held overnight, Moyo and Zvidzai were fined 40,000 Zimbabwean dollars (120 euros) while Gumbo and Neshamba were charged with “criminal abuse of duty” and are to be tried on 21 March.