Zimbabwe: So this is democracy?

Journalists in Zimbabwe still risk arrest and imprisonment if they publish anything the government deems untrue or unfairly critical, with no sign of a let-up in a two-year-old crackdown on the media.

Despite repeated calls for a review of the tough media laws that came into force in 2002, local journalists say there is little hope that the regulations will be changed under President Robert Mugabe.

”In the last 12 months we have seen the crackdown on the media being intensified and taken to new heights,” said Abel Mutsakani, president of the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe (IJAZ).

”We saw a situation where the media has been brought under the control of the central government,” he said, referring to a recent court decision upholding that the state had a right to demand that journalists and their employers had to register before operating in the country.

Under Zimbabwe’s media laws journalists and their employers need to be licensed by a state-appointed commission, while the communication of false information carries a fine or maximum five-year prison term under security laws.

The IJAZ, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Zimbabwe), the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists and the Media Monitoring project of Zimbabwe said in a report to mark press freedom day on Monday that more than 100 people working in the media had been arrested under the media and security laws since 2000.

”The past four years have seen some of the worst media and freedom of expression violations being perpetrated on journalists,” they said, adding that the media environment in the troubled southern African state ”can best be described as anarchic,” they added.

”Media practitioners face detention, arrest, imprisonment and even death,” said Misa-Zimbabwe. ”Working as a journalist or media practitioner especially for the independent media, has become a hazardous if not life-threatening.”

Zimbabwe Information Minister Jonathan Moyo on Friday warned that there was enough room in the country’s prisons for local journalists who peddle ”lies” in the foreign media.

”Such reporters are terrorists and the position on how to deal with terrorists is to subject them to the laws of Zimbabwe,” Moyo said.

Last month Moyo warned journalists that ”mercenaries of any kind, whether carrying the sword or the pen, must and will be exposed, and they will suffer the full consequences of the law”.

Zimbabwe had the worst record in terms of media freedom among 10 southern African nations last year, a report by the Windhoek-based Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) said on Friday.

It has already kicked out foreign reporters working for international news media organisations.

In its latest annual report So This Is Democracy? State of media freedom in Southern Africa, the body said that 54% of the total 188 alerts issued last year on possible violations of press freedom concerned Zimbabwe.

In February, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled that a media law compelling journalists to be accredited with a government-appointed media commission and allow the body to develop and enforce a code of conduct, was constitutional.

”It casts a dark shadow on the fraternity because it shrinks the democratic space,” said journalist Brian Mangwende.

Misa-Zimbabwe said the environment in which journalists operate has forced it to launch a campaign dubbed ”Zimbabwean journalists under fire” whose objectives include exposing ”the persecution of media workers” and providing ”support to victims.

The forced closure of Zimbabwe’s Daily News, a privately-owned newspaper that was highly critical of Mugabe, was probably the ”most devastating blow” to press freedom last year, according to Misa.

However, in spite of the gloomy picture, there were some signs of hope.

IJAZ chief Mutsakani said despite the closure of the Daily News ”we have continued to see private media continuing to brave the onslaught. This is encouraging”.

At least four independent weeklies and one daily operate in Zimbabwe as an alternative to the state-owned dailies and televison and radio stations. – Sapa

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Susan Njanji
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