151 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Area: 390,760 sq. km.
Languages: English, Shona, Ndebele
Head of state: Robert Mugabe, since 1987
The year 2009 has given rise to new hopes for press freedom in Zimbabwe. After several years of brutal repression orchestrated by Robert Mugabe, the new government of national unity, led by former political opponent Morgan Tsvangirai, has the opportunity, if the head of state allows him the time and the means, to finally allow the media to grow again from the ashes.
The press of Zimbabwe today lies in ruins. The process of destruction began with close and permanent surveillance of journalists backed by draconian laws. The free and independent media was gagged in 2002 by the law on Access to Information and Protection of Private Life (AIPPA). This was followed up on 6 August 2007 with the promulgation of the law on “interception of communications”, which bolstered the paranoia of the political and police apparatus, allowing the government and the police the right to intercept, read or listen to emails and mobile phone calls without any legal authorisation. The editors of the Zimpapers newspaper group were bugged in August 2008 to check on their loyalty to the ruling party. A year before that, a blacklist of 15 journalists allegedly “western agents”, working with governments hostile to Zimbabwe, was circulated within the intelligence services.
It has also been wrecked by grotesque official rules and obstructions. Zimbabwean journalists who are still able to work in the country carefully protect their accreditation, granted parsimoniously each year by the Media and Information Commission (MIC). Without it, they face two years in prison. Foreign journalists, who pay exorbitant fees for their accreditation, are virtually unable to get into Harare any longer. An almost total news blackout has been slapped on sensitive issues, such as social unrest, the economic crisis and the public health disaster in which southern Africa’s former “bread basket” is now mired.
A third cause of the collapse in press freedom in Zimbabwe has been police brutality and injustices meted out to journalists. Jestina Mukoko, former presenter on the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), then the privately owned Voice of The People (VOP), and freelance photojournalist Shadreck Manyere were both abducted in December 2008 and accused of “terrorism”. They were held for several weeks in the top security Chikurubi jail, before being finally released, respectively in March and April 2009. Before that freelance cameraman and former contributor to ZBC, Edward Chikomba was less fortunate that his colleagues. His body was recovered on 31 March 2007, two days after he was kidnapped by two men believed to be intelligence agents. No proper investigation into his death was ever carried out.
The urgent task ahead is for an easing of laws and encouragement to the independent press, previously one of Africa’s most vigorous, to get back on its feet again. Before 2002, when Robert Mugabe had the AIPPA law voted in, people would fall on the newspapers every morning, particularly the privately owned Daily News, which was run by experienced journalists and trusted for its reliable news and serious approach. The paper, which was shut down in 2003, has tirelessly sought permission to resume publishing.