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03 Mar 2004 17:08
Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court on Wednesday began hearing a constitutional challenge brought by the country’s main independent daily, a fierce critic of President Robert Mugabe, against tough media laws that were used to close down the newspaper last year.
The Daily News was shut down by armed police in September for operating without registering with a government commission, a requirement under a law passed by Mugabe shortly after his re-election in March 2002.
The Daily News had refused to register, arguing the law was unconstitutional.
It mounted a challenge to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in the Supreme Court in September, but the court said the paper was operating illegally and should comply with the law before challenging it.
A day later police forcibly shut down the paper.
Various courts have since then ordered that the paper be allowed to publish again, but it has only sporadically appeared on newsstands. The last edition came out on February 5 this year.
Daily News lawyer Chris Andersen on Wednesday told the five judges sitting as a constitutional court that the paper has now “satisfied the provisions of the order made by this court”.
This referred to the fact that the Daily News has applied to the media commission for a licence, but the application was turned down.
He said that sections of the media law, which has been condemned by rights groups here and abroad, contravene the Zimbabwean Constitution.
These include the section allowing the government to seize property of a media house that breaks the law.
Computers and other equipment seized by the police after the Daily News was closed down in September last year have still not been returned.
Andersen argued that members of the Media and Information Commission (MIC) are appointed by the minister of information and could be suspended by him and therefore could not be “independent minds”.
In the case of the Daily News it amounted to being “subjected to
discipline by a hostile minister”, Andersen said.
The Daily News, founded in 1999, has been a thorn in the side of Mugabe’s government because of its unrelenting criticism of the regime’s policies.
The government has in turn accused the paper of being a front for Western interests.
Government lawyer Johannes Tomana defended the media law as “entirely reasonable in a democratic society”.
But two judges questioned the power of the minister to hire and fire members of the commission.
“Is there justice in it?” asked Judge Luke Malaba.
The Daily News had in October last year challenged the media commission’s refusal to register it.
The administrative court ordered the Daily News to be licensed and accused the state-controlled media commission of showing bias towards the paper and of being irregularly constituted and ordered it disbanded.
The commission appealed to the Supreme Court against the ruling, and that appeal was also heard on Wednesday.
Media commission lawyer Tomana told the Supreme Court that the administrative court had erred in ruling against the commission, which he said was properly constituted and had not shown any prejudice.
The Daily News is the only independent alternative to Zimbabwe’s two state-run dailies, The Herald and The Chronicle, and has about one million readers.—Sapa-AFP
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