CPJ named Zimbabwe one of the "World's Worst Places to Be a Journalist" in 2004, with the government of President Robert Mugabe continuing to crack down on the private media. Repressive legislation was used to close the country's only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News, and to detain and harass journalists. Authorities were particularly sensitive to reporting on human rights, economic woes, and political opposition to the regime.
With parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2005, the government said it would not allow the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party access to state-controlled media. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, accused of plotting to assassinate Mugabe, was acquitted of treason in a surprising October court ruling. Yet despite the ruling, the opposition party was considering boycotting the election to protest the uneven playing field.
No foreign correspondents reported from Zimbabwe in 2004 after the last remaining one, Andrew Meldrum of the London-based Guardian newspaper, was deemed "undesirable" and deported in 2003. Local journalists known to be filing for foreign news organizations have been subjected to frequent harassment; in February, three journalists from the state-owned daily The Herald were fired for working for the U.S. government–funded broadcaster Voice of America.
In November, Parliament passed a measure banning foreign-funded, nongovernmental organizations that promote human rights and good government. Independent journalists in Zimbabwe and abroad feared that the legislation would deprive them of important sources on crucial issues. It was but one in a series of repressive new laws rushed through Parliament in the run-up to the elections. Others include the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which imposes up to 20 years' imprisonment, heavy fines, or both for publishing or communicating "false" information deemed prejudicial to the state. Journalists fear that the law could be used broadly against any Zimbabwean who communicates with news outlets or organizations based abroad.
Another measure passed in November toughened the already strict Access to Information and Public Privacy Act (AIPPA), a 2002 law that criminalized practicing journalism without a license from the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC). The 2004 amendments allow authorities to jail any journalist found working without MIC accreditation for up to two years. During parliamentary debate, MDC members called for the repeal of AIPPA, according to South Africa's Mail and Guardian. One MDC parliamentarian noted that AIPPA did not conform
to Southern African Development Community (SADC) principles on good government and free press. The SADC comprises 14 southern and central African countries, including Zimbabwe, and promotes sustainable development, democracy, peace, and security.
However, SADC countries, including Zimbabwe's powerful neighbor, South Africa, have been reluctant to criticize Mugabe, with whom they have long-standing ties. South African President Thabo Mbeki has remained publicly supportive of Mugabe and has pressed ahead with a policy of "quiet diplomacy."
In February, Zimbabwe's Supreme Court upheld AIPPA in a constitutional challenge brought by the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe. The association had argued that compulsory registration violated journalists' constitutional rights to free expression. A separate challenge to the law by ANZ, the company that owns The Daily News, was pending at year's end.
The Daily News first closed in September 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled that it was violating the law by not registering with the MIC. Police occupied the newspaper's offices to enforce the ban. The daily briefly resumed publication in January 2004 but was closed at year's end, and local journalists held out little hope that it could reopen before the March 2005 elections. The Daily News continued to publish an online edition from South Africa.
William Saidi, news editor of The Daily News, said AIPPA was being used to destroy his paper. "The Daily News had overtaken the government's newspaper The Herald in circulation and was accused of influencing the elections in 2002, so as some form of punishment, the government decided they would ban The Daily News," he told the BBC in July. Mugabe was re-elected in the 2002 vote, which foreign observers said was marred by violence and intimidation.
In June, authorities closed the private weekly Tribune for a year, saying it had violated AIPPA by failing to notify the MIC of changes in ownership and frequency of publication. Tribune Publisher Kindness Paradza told CPJ the closure was politically motivated, and local journalists noted that Tribune published articles critical of Information Minister Jonathan Moyo. Paradza, a member of Parliament with the ruling ZANU-PF, said in March that Zimbabwe's media laws should be revised.
Moyo lashed out at two other independent weekly newspapers, The Standard and The Independent, calling them "running dogs of imperialism." The editors of both newspapers faced charges under restrictive press and security laws. CPJ sources said authorities targeted the two publications in the run-up to the March elections, noting that with the closing of The Daily News, the weeklies were the country's only remaining independent newspapers.
Still, government harassment has not silenced the papers' critical reporting. In October, for example, The Independent wrote that Zimbabwe was "hurtling towards fascist rule" with the introduction of "new despotic laws that analysts ... said were calculated to cripple civil society and the opposition."
Although AIPPA has been used to detain and harass dozens of journalists, none has yet been convicted under the law. In September, a Harare court acquitted four directors of the banned Daily News who had been charged with publishing the newspaper without a license. The court ruled that the state failed to prove even a basic case against the defendants.