CPJ delegation meets ambassador, deplores worsening press conditions

New York, March 20, 2001 — A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) today met with Zimbabwean ambassador to the United States Simbi Mubako in Washington, D.C. to convey CPJ’s concern about serious threats to press freedom in Zimbabwe.

During the two-hour discussion, CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said press freedom conditions have deteriorated dramatically in Zimbabwe since the January 1999 arrest and torture of Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto of the Harare weekly The Standard. The two journalists had angered authorities by reporting on a revolt within army ranks.

CPJ cited the significant increase in violence against journalists; the harsh anti-independent press rhetoric of the ruling ZANU-PF party; ongoing government efforts to regulate the accreditation of journalists; and the government’s efforts to block independent broadcasting.

Other members of the CPJ delegation were Ray Choto, chief reporter for The Standard; Clarence Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune and a member of CPJ’s board of directors; Yves Sorokobi, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator; and Frank Smyth, CPJ representative in Washington.

Journalist Ray Choto said the government’s plan to introduce new rules to regulate the accreditation of journalists would be “tantamount to curtailing press freedom.” Choto also denounced the extreme difficulties that independent journalists face in obtaining government-held information.

In response, Ambassador Mubako agreed that Zimbabwe should have “a law that compels government to provide information to journalists when required to do so under a freedom of information act.”

While noting the government’s concern about the professional standards of the country’s relatively young private media, Ambassador Mubako stressed that the government “must do nothing to impair the independence of the press. Journalists must be protected better than they have been before.”

At the end of the discussion, CPJ outlined five immediate, concrete steps that the government should take to improve the press freedom climate:

  • Condemn the April 22, 2000 bombing of the Harare Daily News and pursue a vigorous investigation.
  • Implement the Supreme Court’s September 22 ruling opening broadcasting to private investors.

  • Reject all restrictions on the accreditation of journalists, and include local journalists in any discussion of issues relevant to professional journalism.
  • Abandon threats to bring criminal defamation charges against the Daily News and The Standard in connection with their coverage of a recent civil suit brought against President Robert Mugabe in the United States by survivors of last year’s pre-election violence.
  • Refrain from harassing and intimidating foreign journalists covering Zimbabwe.

Without endorsing CPJ’s recommendations, Ambassador Mubako agreed to convey them to the government in Harare.

On the private broadcasting ban, Ambassador Mubako described the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s monopoly as “regrettable. It is a legacy of our colonial past,” Mubako said.

Summarizing the list of current press freedom concerns, Ray Choto said, “Journalism in Zimbabwe at the moment is in a crisis.” In appealing for greater government openness, Choto asked, “When are going to get the truth from the government?”