Government orders expulsion of foreign correspondent

New York, February 15, 2001 — Mercedes Sayagues, Harare correspondent for the South African weekly Mail and Guardian, has been ordered to leave Zimbabwe within 24 hours, according to the government-owned Herald newspaper.

The decision to expel Sayagues came as the government of President Robert Mugabe announced a clampdown on permits for foreign journalists seeking to report news in Zimbabwe. According to the announcement, no extensions of work permits for foreign correspondents will be issued until the government has developed a new system for accrediting journalists through the Department of Information and Publicity. Thus, it appears that any foreign journalist whose work permit expires before the new system is in place will be expelled from Zimbabwe, as the government has now ordered in the case of Sayagues. The government’s announcement set no deadline for finalizing the new accreditation system.

Sayagues is a citizen of Uruguay who has been working in Zimbabwe since 1992. Her last Temporary Employment Permit (TEP), the annual document allowing her to work in the country as a foreign correspondent, expired on December 31, but the government had given her an interim extension valid until February 26 while she waited for approval of a new TEP. On February 14, Sayagues left Harare for South Africa on a business trip, believing that she would be able to return and resume work normally with the interim extension. While in Johannesburg she read local news reports about the government’s decision not to renew her work permit, and to expel her within 24 hours. The government has not given Sayagues any official notice of its decision, according to CPJ’s sources in Zimbabwe.

Ms. Sayagues has written extensively about corruption in the government, and has exposed torture and human rights abuses perpetrated by the ruling ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe. On February 2, in a story in the Mail and Guardian, Sayagues reported allegations that Zimbabwe military personnel were involved in the January 28 bombing of a Harare printing house that produces the independent Daily News. The government has denied the allegations and has promised a full investigation of the bombing.

“The government’s completely unjustified expulsion of Mercedes Sayagues is a blatant attempt to silence her independent reporting,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “It is an ominous signal that the government is intensifying its anti-media campaign, which has left local and foreign journalists increasingly vulnerable to violent attacks and legal action.”

In addition to the new rules freezing work permits for foreign journalists, Zimbabwe’s government recently announced its intention to introduce measures banning all foreign investment in privately owned media.