Zimbabwe: Journalists covering elections subjected to intimidation

June 20, 2000

President Robert Mugabe
Office of the President
Munhumutapa Building
Samora Machel Avenue/ 3rd Street
Harare, Zimbabwe
VIA FAX: 011-263-4-708-820
Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is deeply concerned by the climate of intimidation in which journalists covering the upcoming parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe are being forced to work. In recent weeks, local and foreign correspondents have been subjected to harassment and even violence by politicians and other individuals associated with your government and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

On June 20 in southern Zimbabwe, a mob of some 20 people, one of whom wore a ZANU-PF shirt, attacked a car carrying four foreign journalists, according to local and international news reports. The attack took place on a farm, 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.

On June 6, Chenjerai Hunzvi, who is currently leading a campaign to occupy private commercial farms in Zimbabwe as chairman of the National Liberation War Veterans’ Association, warned the private, Harare-based Daily News to desist from publishing articles that allegedly tarnished his image and that of his organization, which is close to the ruling party.

According to CPJ sources in Zimbabwe, Hunzvi also threatened to sue The Daily News, which he accused of profiting financially from its allegedly malicious coverage of his activities. (To date, Hunzvi’s supporters have occupied some 1,500 farms in Zimbabwe, most of them white-owned.) “I do not want to start a war with the newspaper, but this is my last warning,” he told reporters at a press conference in Harare.

On June 9, three days after Hunzvi’s statement, war veterans in the town of Kwekwe, Midlands Province, attempted to block the free distribution of private publications by assaulting local newspaper vendors, according to CPJ’s sources. The veterans targeted The Independent, The Standard and The Daily News. They seized copies of these papers and burned them, alleging that they were misinforming the people. Chanting revolutionary songs, the attackers demanded that only the state-owned daily Herald be sold on local newsstands.

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. Yet the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has come under intense criticism for its biased reporting, which usually favors Your Excellency, the ZANU-PF, and other political organizations and individuals with close links to you. In recent weeks, pro-ZANU-PF bias in state media led the Supreme Court to issue an interim order compelling the ZBC to cover the news “impartially and without discrimination on the basis of political opinion and without hindering persons in their right to impart and receive ideas and information.”

The ZBC’s gross pro-government bias is particularly troubling in that the network holds a legal broadcasting monopoly, and is thus unconstrained by competition from private broadcasters. On June 13, the Supreme Court rejected an urgent petition by prospective private broadcaster Capital Radio to liberalize the airwaves, on the grounds that the government had already taken enough steps to amend the law.

On March 8, furthermore, Parliament passed a new Post and Telecommunications Bill after a very brief public debate. The bill, which currently awaits Your Excellency’s signature, stipulates that “if in the opinion of the President, it is necessary in the interests of national security or the maintenance of law and order, he may give direction that any communication (…) shall be intercepted or monitored in a manner specified in the direction; or any (…) service (…) shall be suspended in respect of a person named in the direction.” Under the provisions of the Bill, 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 proposed legislation flouts international freedom of expression norms, in that it gives Your Excellency unlimited powers to monitor and censor communications in all media, including the Internet. Section 96 of the bill, which specifies that Your Excellency’s decisions may not be appealed, also violates Section 18 (9) of Zimbabwe’s Constitution of 1980, which guarantees “a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial court or other adjudicating authority established by law in the determination of the existence or extent of his civil rights or obligations.”

This bill would clearly inhibit the ability of journalists in Zimbabwe to work freely, since reporters and their sources must be able to communicate in confidence. We therefore urge Your Excellency not to sign the Post and Telecommunications Bill, and to use the powers of your 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, we suggest you issue a public guarantee that all journalists in Zimbabwe will be free to cover the June 24-25 elections, and any future political events in your country, without fear of reprisal.

We thank you for your attention to these important matters and await your comments.

Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director