New York, June 21, 2000 –As Zimbabwe’s June 24-25 parliamentary elections approach, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is calling on President Robert Mugabe to publicly guarantee that journalists will be free to cover them without fear of reprisal.
“CPJ is deeply concerned about the climate of intimidation in which journalists covering the elections are being forced to work,” noted executive director Ann Cooper.
In recent weeks, local and foreign correspondents have been subjected to harassment and even violence by politicians and other individuals associated with the Mugabe government and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).
In southern Zimbabwe on June 20, for example, a mob of some 20 people, one of whom wore a ZANU-PF shirt, attacked a car carrying four foreign journalists, according to news reports. The attack took place in full view of Commonwealth election observers.
The four journalists—-Beatrice Khadige of Agence France-Presse, Sharon Chetty of the South African newspaper The Sowetan, Guy Oliver of the South African TV network e-TV, and e-TV cameraman Brian Ramapulana–escaped unharmed, but the windows of their rental car were smashed.
“This is my last warning: I do not want to start a war with the newspaper”
At a press conference in Harare on June 6, Chenjerai Hunzvi, leader of a campaign to occupy private commercial farms in Zimbabwe, warned the private, Harare-based Daily News to stop publishing articles that allegedly tarnished his image and that of his organization, the National Liberation War Veterans’ Association, which is close to the ruling party.
According to CPJ sources in Zimbabwe, Hunzvi threatened to sue The Daily News, which he accused of profiting financially from its coverage of his activities. “I do not want to start a war with the newspaper, but this is my last warning,” he told reporters.
On June 9, three days after Hunzvi’s statement, war veterans in the town of Kwekwe attempted to block distribution of private publications by assaulting local newspaper vendors, according to CPJ sources. Alleging that the papers were misinforming the people, the veterans seized copies of The Independent, The Standard, and The Daily News and burned them. Chanting revolutionary songs, the attackers demanded that only the state-owned daily Herald be sold on local newsstands.
In a protest letter to President Mugabe, CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said, “As Your Excellency is no doubt aware, freedom of expression cannot be the monopoly of a single media outlet, political organization, or individual. Democratic elections require that everyone be guaranteed unrestricted access to news and information.”
The state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has come under intense criticism for biased reporting that usually favors President Mugabe and his party, the ZANU-PF, as well as political organizations and individuals close to Mugabe. Under current Zimbabwe law, the ZBC has a monopoly over the country’s airwaves and is not constrained by competition from private broadcasters.
CPJ is also concerned about the new Post and Telecommunications Bill, which Parliament passed on March 8 after a very brief public debate. The bill allows the government to monitor and intercept any communication in any medium, including the Internet, if, “in the opinion of the President, it is necessary in the interests of national security or the maintenance of law and order.” Persons caught distributing information that violates “state security” could face two years’ imprisonment, a fine of Z$200,000 (approx. US$5,260), or both. The bill currently awaits Mugabe’s signature.
CPJ urged President Mugabe not to sign the Post and Telecommunications Bill, and to use the powers of his office to ensure that other legal impediments to the full exercise of free speech in Zimbabwe are removed. As a gesture of good faith, finally, CPJ urges Mugabe to issue a public guarantee that all journalists in Zimbabwe will be free to cover the June 24-25 elections without fear of reprisal.