Reporters Without Borders urges the Southern African Development Community observer mission to resist the temptation to minimise the importance of the government’s and ruling party’s control over the media in the 29 March general elections. The SADC yesterday said “the climate is right to hold elections” even if there were “concerns” about “inequality of media time given to different candidates” and other “irregularities.”
“The euphemisms being used by the SADC observers contrast with the appeals for help from Zimbabwean civil society and independent journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Even if there is a logic to not confronting President Robert Mugabe and his government head on if you hope for change, you cannot act as if the conditions are in place for these elections to be free and fair.”
The press freedom organisation added : “There are real, structural anomalies behind these ‘irregularities’ - including in the news media - that will not be changed by prudence and discretion. The SADC’s final judgment should be based on the principles and rules which it decreed in 2004 for all its members, without exception.”
Zimbabweans are to elect a president, senators, house of assembly representatives and town councillors on 29 March. Mugabe, the 84-year-old incumbent president and head of the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), is standing for a sixth term.
The government took a series of measures to tighten its grip on society and the press for the last general elections, in 2002. They included adoption of the AIPPA, an extremely repressive law for regulating independent news media such as the privately-owned Daily News, whose growing influence posed a challenge to the government’s hold over the country.
After the bombing of its printing presses and an unfair prosecution, the Daily News was forced to close in 2003. It has not been able to resume publishing since then, despite several favourable court rulings. The AIPPA also regulates journalists very strictly, placing them under the authority of the Media Information Commission, a political entity closely controlled by the government.
Biased state media
The state media, including the national TV station, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), are well-known for their biased and one-sided coverage of Zimbabwean politics. The bias has been well documented by independent organisations such as the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ).
In its report on the week of 3-9 March, the MMPZ said : “The government media’s relentless complicity in the creation of a highly uneven electoral playing field ahead of the March 29 elections was overwhelmingly evident again this week.” It said ZBC had 148 positive reports on ZANU-PF against 19 for all the opposition parties. In air-time, this represented 1 hour 9 minutes for Mugabe allies against 17 minutes for all the others.
The MMPZ acknowledged that new rules issued on 7 March had given the opposition a little bit more air-time but it pointed out that references to presidential candidate Simba Makoni, a former finance minister and ZANU-PF dissident, were systematically accompanied by reminders of his “betrayal” of the ruling party.
An SADC delegation met with representatives of the electoral commission and state media on 14 March but the outcome of the meeting is not known.
Climate of repression and fear
Meanwhile, there has been no let-up in the threats hanging over the independent press. Not content with imposing draconian legislation, the authorities have ensured that a climate of suspicion and fear of arrest prevails among Zimbabwean and foreign journalists.
Even if amendments at the end of 2007 supposedly relaxed the press law, foreign press accreditation requests have been closely examined by a nit-picking inter-ministerial committee that is meant to ensure that “spies” do not “pass themselves off as journalists.” Hotel reservation made by foreign journalists were cancelled by the foreign minister on the grounds that priority had to be given to the African election observers.
Repression and surveillance of Zimbabwean journalists have continued. Brian Hungwe, a famous Zimbabwean journalist who works for the South African TV network SABC, was stripped of his accreditation - without which a journalist cannot work - last year by the Media Information Commission without any explanation being given.
When Hungwe asked the high court to overturn the MIC’s decision, it finally responded that his appeal was not “urgent” although the decision has prevented him from working and earning for more than six months. In desperation, he appealed to the supreme court on 18 March.
The climate for journalists in Harare has been made all the more oppressive by the murder of freelance cameraman Edward Chikomba, a former ZBC employee, who was found dead on 31 March 2007, two days after being kidnapped by suspected intelligence officers. His colleagues think he was killed for providing foreign news media with footage showing opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai with his face badly swollen after being beaten in detention.
In September 2007, the Zimbabwean press published what appeared to be the leaked first page of a multi-page intelligence service memo listing at least 15 journalists working for independent news media who were to be subject to “strict surveillance,” arrest and other unspecified “measures” in the run-up to the 2008 elections.