Zimbabwe's Supreme Court on Monday quashed a ban on the independent <i>Daily News</i> newspaper, known for its anti-government line, but upheld a controversial media law that has forced three other newspapers to close down. The paper's former legal secretary, Gugulethu Moyo, slammed the court's decision.
Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court on Monday quashed a ban on the independent Daily News newspaper, known for its anti-government line, but upheld a controversial media law that has forced three other newspapers to close down.
Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku said the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC) had erred in ordering the paper to stop publishing.
”The determination of the media commission denying the applicant the licence to operate as a mass media organisation is set aside,” he ruled before advising the newspaper to submit a new licence application to the commission.
The Daily News and its sister paper, The Daily News on Sunday, were forcibly closed in September 2003 under Zimbabwe’s stringent media laws, which require all news organisations to obtain a licence from the commission.
But the court refused to strike down sections of Zimbabwe’s tough media laws as demanded by The Daily News‘s publishers, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ).
The chief justice added that the application to declare several sections of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act null and void ”is dismissed”.
ANZ CEO Samuel Sipepa Nkomo said he was ”disappointed” by the ruling but declined to comment further.
The paper’s former legal secretary, Gugulethu Moyo, who handled the months-long legal battles, slammed the court’s decision and accused the judiciary of colluding with President Robert Mugabe to stifle press freedom.
”As wicked as Mugabe’s media laws are, they are not self-executing, they require judges that are complicit with the government in stripping the people of their basic human rights,” said Moyo in a telephone interview from London.
In March, Daily News editors went before the Supreme Court to argue that sections of the media law, which has been condemned by rights groups in Zimbabwe and abroad, are in violation of the Zimbabwean Constitution.
It also argued that the MIC, which licenses journalists and their publications, is illegal, citing in particular the fact that some of its members were appointed by then information minister Jonathan Moyo, the architect of the media laws.
The Daily News was launched in 1999, providing nearly a million readers with the only independent alternative to two state-run dailies — The Herald and The Chronicle.
It proved to be a thorn in the side of Mugabe’s government, with its harshly critical editorial line.
Mugabe in January signed into law an amendment toughening up the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which can see unlicensed journalists jailed for up to two years.
Under the new regulations, journalists who work without a government licence now face a two-year jail sentence or a fine, or both. The state-approved MIC has powers to accredit journalists.
It also bars foreign journalists from working permanently in the Southern African country.
Moyo, who was fired after falling out of favour with Mugabe, last year defended the amendments to ”protect the state from attacks by enemies of the country”, a reference to Western nations critical of Mugabe’s government.
The original law was passed in March 2002, just days after Mugabe’s victory in controversial presidential polls, which were widely slammed as being marred by violence and fraud.
Following its promulgation, four independent newspapers have been shut down and scores of journalists arrested, while others have fled the country for fear of arrest.
Other than The Daily News and The Daily News on Sunday, the Weekly Tribune was shut down in June last year and the Weekly Times closed last month.
Under Zimbabwean law, it is an offence to insult the president and it can attract a jail term.
Most recent victim of media laws
At the end of February, the Weekly Times was shut down for allegedly violating the country’s media laws.
The paper, the fourth to be closed in the Southern African country since the enactment of the media laws in 2002, was shut down after publishing just eight editions, and just a month ahead of crunch national elections.
”We got a letter … from the Media and Information Commission saying our licence has been cancelled for one year,” owner Godfrey Ncube said in a telephone interview from Bulawayo.
The Bulawayo-based weekly first hit the newsstands on January 2 this year.
The MIC chairperson, Tafataona Mahoso, in comments published by the state-run Herald, said the Weekly Times had been closed for misrepresentation of and failure to disclose certain facts it pledged when the registration licence was issued in September last year.
Prominent journalists leave
Also in February, three prominent Zimbabwean journalists who wrote for the international press left the country after several days of police questioning and threats of prosecution.
Angus Shaw, correspondent for Associated Press, Jan Raath, of The Times, and Brian Latham, who wrote news reports for the Bloomberg agency, were interrogated, had their offices searched and were told they would be charged with various offences that carry jail terms.
Their lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, described the police action as harassment, adding: ”It is clear the police were just searching for something to charge them with.”
Only one correspondent for a British newspaper remains in Zimbabwe: Peta Thornycroft, who writes for The Daily Telegraph.
The news agencies Reuters and Agence France-Presse still maintain offices in the country. — Guardian Unlimited Ã‚