Reporters Without Borders today voiced serious concern over a growing government crackdown on independent media with one month to go before presidential elections in Zimbabwe on 29 March.
Journalists have been arrested, summoned and ordered to reveal sources, charged with “publication of false news” and newspapers threatened with closure if they fail to comply, in an upsurge of harassment that seriously threatens press freedom ahead of polling,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
“This is not the first time the police and the sinister Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) have cracked down on the media and opposition,” it said. “They formed the vanguard of the crackdown against journalists in the 2000 elections. These arrests, attempted intimidation and other forms of persecution are aimed at instilling fear among the public in the run-up to the 29 March poll,” it added.
State security agents burst into the offices of the privately-owned weekly The Masvingo Mirror, on 9 February, demanding that they reveal their sources for two articles headlined, "Major Mbudzi ties the bell around the Cat’s neck” and "Makoni’s national surgical operation, Mbudzi speaks out". The articles which were carried in the 8 to 14 February edition, referred to the candidature of former finance minister Simba Makoni, now an opponent of President Robert Mugabe.
“Two men wearing dark suits and sunglasses demanded to know our sources and threatened us with closure if we continued to publish stories that are anti-government and aimed at de-campaigning the ruling party", said the paper’s editor, Regis Chingawo. He added that it was “obvious” that remarks by Mbudzi, spokesman for the presidential party in Masvingo, describing President Mugabe as a “bus driver who is nodding off at the wheel and refuses to let anyone else drive” had “infuriated” state security.
A week later, on 17 February, heavily-armed members of the anti-riot police arrested independent journalist Fazila Mohammed, who was covering a clash between supporters of two bishops with different political affiliations at Harare’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral. She had her tape-recorder seized before being released. She was summoned to appear at the central police station in Harare on 18 February and was finally released without any charge.
Three journalists working for the weekly The Network Guardian, Blessed Mhlanga, James Muonwa and Wycliff Nyarota, appeared in court in Kwekwe, central Zimbabwe on 18 February charged with “publishing false news” in an article that appeared on 26 March 2006. The judge set the date for their trial as 15 April 2008.
Three days later on 21 February, the information and Publicity minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, threatened to severely punish the weekly The Financial Gazette in Harare if an article referring to dissent within the presidential party was not immediately removed.
“I will not hesitate to institute the necessary corrective measures upon the paper in accordance to our laws,” the minister said. The article said that some party members, who are showing growing defiance, refused to sign the papers needed for Robert Mugabe to be nominated as presidential candidate.