Reporters Without Borders wrote today to United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Haile Menkerios asking him to take account of the current climate of fear for the independent media in Zimbabwe when he arrives in Harare for talks with the government next week. Here is the text of the letter.
Mr. Haile Menkerios
Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs
Department of Political Affairs
New York NY 10017
Paris, 13 June 2008
Dear Mr. Menkerios
In view of your intention to visit Harare from 16 to 20 June, ahead of the 27 June presidential election run-off, Reporters Without Borders would like to brief you about the government’s serious press freedom violations and the climate of fear reigning among journalists and human rights activists.
The election campaign and first round of the presidential election on 29 March were disastrous for press freedom. Eighteen journalists and media assistants were arrested. The climate has worsened since then, especially in recent weeks, with the authorities now using independence war veterans as a supplementary force for the security services. Our organisation is very concerned that the decisive second round will be the occasion for a further escalation in the repression.
The campaign of intimidation and harassment of journalists has been stepped up in the approach to the second round. Each week, our organisation and local press freedom NGOs have registered cases of journalists being arrested arbitrarily or placed in custody for no reason, which is reinforcing the climate of fear and self-censorship. There have also been police raids on news media and independent organisations, and journalists have been unfairly dismissed from state-owned media.
Journalists have not been the only victims of this campaign. The Zimbabwean authorities have violated their commitments by stepping up physical attacks and arrests involving the opposition, including its leaders, preventing the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was ahead in the first round, from campaigning freely.
Human rights activists have also been targeted. Abel Chikomo, for example, the head of Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum (ZHF) and a member of the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ), was arrested during a police swoop on the MMPZ office in the western town of Binga on 7 June. Thirteen other people were arrested at the same time for holding an unauthorised public meeting. They were released without charge four days later.
Christian Alliance news director Pius Wakatama and nine other members of religious organisations were arrested in a raid carried out on an ecumenical centre in Harare on 9 June by members of a military security unit and the Criminal Investigation Department. Wakatama, a journalist who used to work for The Standard, an independent weekly, and the Daily News, was finally released on the evening of the same day without being charged.
The authorities carried out a radical screening of journalists authorised to cover the elections, in violation of international conventions signed by Zimbabwe, while the foreign media and their local employees are kept under constant surveillance, resulting in arrests and heavy sentences. Bernet Hasani Sono, Resemate Boy Chauke and Simon Maodi were stopped by police on 23 May as they were transporting equipment belonging to the British TV station Sky News and were given six-month prison sentences on 2 June for “unauthorised possession of TV broadcast equipment.”
The government has also stepped up its restrictions on news entering the country from abroad. A tax of 40 per cent of the total cost per kilogram was imposed on imported print media a week ago with the aim limiting the circulation of foreign newspapers and magazines, and publications produced by Zimbabwean journalists in exile.
Zimbabwe’s privately-owned press has been stifled and reduced to a handful of closely-watched publications, while journalists employed by the state media are punished if they do not contribute to government propaganda. The state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) fired seven reporters and news editors without explanation on 3 June. Internal sources said ZBC’s new editor in chief, an independence war veteran, accused them of giving too much air time to the main opposition party, the MDC.
The behaviour of the government and its allies is making it very likely that the election results will be completely fraudulent. We think it is important that you should remind President Robert Mugabe that his government is guilty of repeated violations of the treaties and conventions that it signed.
In 2004, for example, Zimbabwe agreed to comply with the Southern African Development Community’s “Principles and Rules Governing Democratic Elections,” which require member states to guarantee “total access to national and international media” during elections. Zimbabwe’s legislation, which is among the most repressive in the world towards the media, has flagrantly violated this principle for years.
We hope that our information and proposal will be of use to you in your visit.