Zimbabwe’s government-appointed Media and Information Commission will not close down two popular private newspapers even if owner Trevor Ncube — also the publisher of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa — loses his Zimbabwean citizenship, state television reported late on Wednesday.
Ncube, a prominent Zimbabwean businessman based in South Africa, publishes the Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent. Zimbabwean authorities announced their decision to strip Ncube of his Zimbabwean citizenship in late December because, they say, he is a Zambian citizen by descent.
Ncube has been trying to renew his Zimbabwean passport. But Zimbabwe’s Registrar General, Tobaiwa Mudede, said Ncube had forfeited his citizenship because he did not renounce his right to a Zambian passport in 2001, according to the state-run Herald newspaper. Zimbabwe’s laws forbid dual citizenship.
”His failure to comply with the requirement to renounce Zambian citizenship by descent within the prescribed period automatically meant loss of Zimbabwean citizenship,” Mudede said in court papers, according to the Herald.
Ncube is challenging the decision to strip him of his citizenship in the High Court. He says he has never held a Zambian passport, adding that both his parents were Zimbabwean citizens at the time of his birth.
The action against the publisher comes as Robert Mugabe (82), president for 26 years, pushes for an extension to his term of office by a further two years. Frustrated by unprecedented resistance from within his Zanu-PF party, he appears to be trying to silence all of his critics.
It is feared that the authorities in Zimbabwe might use Ncube’s loss of citizenship to close down the Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent, because Zimbabwe’s tight press laws prohibit foreigners from having majority control of local media houses.
But in a brief statement, the Media and Information Commission said the two papers will be allowed to continue publishing.
”The [commission] is outraged by a campaign of disinformation originating from publisher Trevor Ncube’s papers suggesting that the commission is somehow behind the case between Mr Ncube and the registrar general’s office and is about to close Mr Ncube’s two weekly newspapers,” the statement read.
”The [Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act] in fact allows any newspaper already publishing at December 31 2002 to maintain their ownership and shareholding structure even when shareholders are foreigners,” said the statement, which was read out on state television.
In December 2005, Zimbabwean authorities seized Ncube’s passport under a new measure to punish government critics. Zimbabwe’s Parliament earlier that year approved changes to the Constitution that allow the state to seize the passports of people perceived to be anti-government. Authorities handed back the passport after six days, after Ncube’s lawyers went to the High Court.
‘Breach of international law’
Zimbabwe’s attempt to strip Ncube of his nationality is a ”flagrant breach of customary international law” under article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality, said Johann P Fritz, director of the International Press Institute, on Wednesday.
”By acting this way, the government is clearly seeking to build the foundations for an assault on Ncube’s newspapers that remain some of the last remaining forums for open and critical debate inside Zimbabwe,” he said in a statement issued to the M&G.
”This government appears determined to ensure that the only voice heard in Zimbabwe is its own. However, such a determination not only undermines all pretence at democracy in the country it also displays a misunderstanding of the important role played by dissent and criticism.”
By closing media organisations and preventing journalists from practising their profession, the Zimbabwean government is isolating itself from debates and discussions that need to take place in a modern society, he said.
”I sincerely hope that the Zimbabwean courts , which in the past have shown a willingness to resist the actions of this present government, reject this latest cynical and presumptuous attempt to manipulate the rule of law in order to silence dissenters,” Fritz said.
Despite numerous arrests and threats of violence, the Zimbabwe Independent and the Standard have continued to expose corruption and human rights abuses.
Most recently Ncube’s newspapers were the only publications to reveal that Mugabe’s efforts to extend his rule until 2010 were rejected at the Zanu-PF party conference in mid-December.
Read a full interview with Ncube in Friday’s edition of the M&G newspaper