Zimbabwe: Government grows more hostile to independent press as election nears

August 16, 2001

H.E. Robert Mugabe
Office of the President
Munhumutapa Building
Samora Machel Avenue/ 3rd Street
Harare, Zimbabwe

VIA FAX: 011-263-4-708-820

Your Excellency:

A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) visited Harare from July 11 to 14 to assess press freedom conditions in Zimbabwe during the run-up to the general elections, scheduled for next spring. The delegation, which consisted of board member Clarence Page, deputy director Joel Simon, and Africa program coordinator Yves Sorokobi, met with journalists from the independent press and held informal discussions with members of the state media. They also spoke at length with Zimbabwean human rights activists and foreign correspondents based in the country.

In their discussions with the CPJ delegation, Zimbabwean media professionals expressed grave concerns about their physical safety. They also mentioned numerous recent developments that have damaged their ability to inform the people of Zimbabwe.

The August 15 arrest of four journalists from Zimbabwe’s leading independent daily shows that these concerns are quite justified. Geoff Nyarota, editor of The Daily News, was arrested along with his colleagues John Gambanga, Bill Saidi, and Sam Munyavi for “publishing false information likely to cause alarm and despondency in the public,” a crime under Section (50)(2)(a) of the colonial-era Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA).

The four men were released that same evening after a High Court judge ruled that detaining journalists under Section (50)(2)(a) of LOMA was unconstitutional.

On August 16, police again interrogated Nyarota for one hour before charging him and his colleagues with “publishing subversive material” under Section 44 of LOMA. We urge Your Excellency to ensure that this new charge is immediately dropped.

A recurrent complaint heard by CPJ delegates is that independent journalists are often victims of vicious assaults by groups of ZANU-PF militants, led by nationalist war veterans, all of whom have enjoyed total impunity so far. Most journalists have been attacked while covering the contentious land invasions and ZANU-PF political rallies, especially in the countryside. Zimbabwean journalists also told CPJ that police have been reluctant to investigate violent assaults on the press, including two terrorist bomb attacks against The Daily News.

“War veterans” also interfere with the distribution of newspapers in certain provinces that they have declared off-limits to the private press. As justification for their behavior, the “war veterans” echo an often-repeated ZANU-PF claim that private newspapers favor the political opposition and are bent on destabilizing the country.

Another grievance voiced by members of Zimbabwe’s private press is the blanket refusal by government ministries and institutions to give journalists access to information about matters of legitimate public concern. By all accounts, state officials have developed a culture of hoarding public information. This clearly violates Article 20(1) of Zimbabwe’s Constitution, which states, “…no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference…”

In instances where journalists have sought official confirmation for sensitive information they obtained independently, they have been confronted with silence, hostility, or even violence. This was the case with reporter Ray Choto and editor Mark Chavunduka of the weekly The Standard, who were detained and tortured in January 1999 for reporting on the arrest of Zimbabwean army officers who had allegedly plotted to overthrow Your Excellency’s government. According to Choto, who wrote the article, The Standard delayed publication for two weeks while the paper tried in vain to obtain the government’s comment on this matter.

Zimbabwean authorities have also restricted foreign media access to the country since the expulsions in February of Mercedes Sayagues, correspondent for the South African Mail & Guardian, and BBC reporter Joseph Winter. Zimbabwean authorities declared Sayagues an undesirable immigrant on the spurious ground that she was spying for the Angolan rebel organization UNITA. Winter was accused of fraudulently obtaining an extension of his work permit, a charge for which Zimbabwean officials produced no solid evidence.

In early June, your government promulgated a new accreditation regime for visiting foreign journalists. The new rules also affected foreign correspondents based in Zimbabwe, who were told to leave the country when their current work permits expired and to reapply for accreditation from their country of origin. And on July 26, your government summarily suspended the accreditation of all BBC correspondents in Zimbabwe for alleged distortions and misrepresentation of events.

Because of the onerous visa requirements, most journalists working for foreign media in Zimbabwe today are Zimbabwean nationals who are not subject to the country’s immigration laws. These journalists, however, described a host of obstacles that make it increasingly difficult for them to work, such as being unfairly denied access to government press conferences. And the few foreign journalists still working in Zimbabwe say it is unsafe for them to work in the countryside, since many of them have been menaced by “war veterans” while reporting on land invasions.

CPJ is gravely concerned that conditions for journalists may worsen further with the imminent introduction of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Bill. On July 24, Your Excellency told The Herald, a state-owned daily, that the bill seeks to improve the quality of information available to every citizen by insisting on integrity and professionalism in the media. Yet the state-appointed body that designed and drafted the bill never consulted members of the independent press, and the bill’s contents remain unknown to the general public.

According to some journalists who saw leaked details of the new legislation, the bill imposes a media code of ethics drafted by the government and creates a press council to enforce it, among other restrictive provisions.

Meanwhile, your government is effectively resisting liberalization of the broadcast spectrum, despite a September 2000 Supreme Court ruling that declared the state’s broadcasting monopoly unconstitutional. Recently, Parliament adopted a Broadcasting Services Act, officially ending the monopoly of the government-operated Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).

The act, which has yet to be implemented, is itself deeply flawed. It gives the state broad powers to decide who may operate a private broadcasting outlet and to ban or suspend private radio and TV stations. The act also restricts foreign investment in the media.

CPJ believes that a free and unfettered press is an essential condition for any democratic election. We therefore urge Your Excellency to work for the immediate elimination of all obstacles inhibiting the work of the press so that the elections can take place in an environment where information circulates freely and ideas are openly debated.
Specifically, we call on Your Excellency to:

• Ensure the physical safety of reporters by publicly condemning the physical intimidation of journalists by the “war veterans” who are active in many rural areas. Since the “war veterans” support Your Excellency and the ZANU-PF, we are confident that a strong statement from you condemning their violent behavior will have a strong deterrent effect. Of course, those “war veterans” who menace, harass, or assault members of the press should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

• Instruct the attorney general to pursue all possible leads in a number of outstanding attacks, including the bombing of The Daily News‘ printing press last year.

• Ensure the free circulation of all print media. The fact that large areas of Zimbabwe have been declared “no-go areas” for the independent press suggests a systematic effort to obstruct reporting and distribution of news in the countryside. The inability of journalists to gain access to these areas is particularly disturbing because of allegations of violence and gross human rights abuses taking place there. Journalists must be allowed to investigate these allegations freely in order to determine their validity.

• Allow foreign journalists full and unfettered access to Zimbabwe. Current visa regulations seem to have been developed to inhibit international media access to Zimbabwe. Moreover, denying visas selectively to media outlets because of critical coverage violates basic international press freedom norms.

• Improve the relationship between the government and the press. All journalists working for domestic and foreign media, both private and state-owned, should be given access to government sources, including official press conferences. While Your Excellency and other members of your government may disagree with some coverage, we urge all government officials to refrain from using inflammatory rhetoric, which some individuals could perceive as a license to attack journalists physically.

• Immediately make public the contents of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, so that journalists and the general public may read and debate it.

• End the use of the country’s criminal laws, including the 1960 Law and Order Maintenance Act, to punish journalists who write critically about your administration.

• Finally, we urge you to comply with the spirit and letter of the Supreme Court decision ending the ZBC’s broadcast monopoly by developing regulations that will open the airwaves to private media. Private broadcasters should be permitted to operate freely, without interference from the state.

Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We await your response.

As is our consistent practice, we are releasing this letter publicly.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director