Attacks on the Press 2003: Zimbabwe

Despite widespread international criticism of Zimbabwe’s appalling human rights record, President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) continued to silence voices of dissent in 2003. During the last four years, the government has pursued a relentless crackdown on the private press through harassment, censorship, and restrictive legislation. 2003 saw the most significant blow to press freedom yet, with authorities shuttering the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only independent daily and one of the most persistent critics of the Mugabe regime.

On September 11, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court declared that the Daily News was violating provisions of the repressive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). Under AIPPA, all media companies are required to register with the Media and Information Commission (MIC). Individual journalists must also be accredited by the commission, whose members are appointed by the information and publicity minister in consultation with the president. When the registration law took effect, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), the company that owns the Daily News, decided not to register the newspaper and challenged the legislation in court as unconstitutional. In a peculiar turn of legal reasoning, the court said that because ANZ had not registered with the commission, it was “operating outside the law,” and that the court would only hear the company’s constitutional challenge once it had registered.

On September 12, police raided the newspaper’s offices and ordered all journalists to leave the building, using the Supreme Court’s declaration as a pretext. On September 15, the Daily News filed an application to register with the MIC. The following day, security agents raided the newspaper’s offices again, confiscating computers and equipment. The agents did not have a warrant, and the Daily News legal adviser said the police were acting illegally since the newspaper had not been convicted of any offense. The High Court ruled on September 18 that the newspaper could resume publishing, and staff began work on a new edition. Nevertheless, police closed the paper’s offices the same day.

The following months saw frenetic legal maneuvering by both the government and the ANZ, but authorities demonstrated a singular determination to keep the paper off the market. Though Administrative Court judges twice ordered the MIC to register the Daily News and allow the paper to reopen, as soon as journalists went back to work, police closed the offices. Meanwhile, authorities arrested ANZ’s directors in September and October and charged them with publishing a newspaper without a license. Police also began charging Daily News journalists for practicing journalism without accreditation. The journalists had applied for accreditation earlier in the year but were denied on the basis that they were working for an unregistered publication. Throughout 2003, Daily News reporters were denied access to Parliament and State House press briefings. At year’s end, 16 journalists had been charged, and their cases were pending.

ZANU-PF officials claimed that the government was not meddling in the judicial proceedings. But with the government frequently accusing the independent press of serving “Western” interests, the authorities were clearly satisfied with the Daily News‘ closure, said several sources. In early October, Information Minister Jonathan Moyo turned his customary invective against two other publications, The Standard and The Independent, calling them “running dogs of imperialism.” Local reports said the head of the MIC later warned the two papers they were being investigated, though they are both registered.

The closure of the Daily News, which has been unremittingly harassed since its inception in 1999, left an information vacuum in Zimbabwe. The paper was distributed throughout the country–Zimbabwean journalists estimate that its readership was close to 1 million–and it was most citizens’ only consistent independent source for news. Aside from shortwave broadcasts from abroad and independent weeklies, whose circulation is mainly confined to urban areas, most Zimbabweans are left to get their information from government media such as The Herald (the country’s only remaining daily) and pro-ZANU-PF publications.

In December, while the Zimbabwean government was suspended from the Commonwealth meeting of the heads of former British colonies in Nigeria, an edition of the Daily News was distributed on Nigerian streets during the summit. The special edition, which featured photos of state oppression of the Zimbabwean opposition and media and was headlined, “The Voices Mugabe Wants to Silence,” (See page 13.) was tucked inside the popular Nigerian daily ThisDay. After the paper’s closure, Daily News staffers also launched an Internet version of the paper from South Africa and managed to publish short editions that appeared in South Africa’s Mail and Guardian and the South African edition of ThisDay, which was distributed in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

International rights groups have repeatedly pressured South Africa to take a more active role in resolving the political and human rights crisis in Zimbabwe, and South African President Thabo Mbeki has come under fire in both the Zimbabwean and South African media for his seemingly ineffective policy of “quiet diplomacy” toward his neighbor. In May, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that the South African government had rejected a formal request from Zimbabwean Information Minister Moyo to curb the “relentless demonization” of Mugabe in the South African media. A spokesperson for Mbeki told AFP, “South Africa has laws that govern the freedom of the press and we have no intention of interfering with that.” However, South African authorities greeted the closing of the Daily News with silence.

In February 2003, Mbeki told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that he had recently discussed with Zimbabwean officials “complaints raised about … legislation passed that has an impact on the press.” Mbeki said that the Zimbabwean government had agreed to amend the legislation, and the following month, Moyo confirmed this. “We are amending [AIPPA] because we realize at the time we enacted it the temperatures were very high, but when the storm has gone you sit back and rationalize,” Moyo claimed. AIPPA was passed soon after Mugabe’s March 2002 election victory, which was marred by allegations of fraud and violent voter intimidation. Within a year of AIPPA’s enactment, Zimbabwean authorities had charged more than a dozen journalists under its provisions and those of the Public Order and Security Act.

In May, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled that Section 80 of AIPPA, which stipulated that it was an “abuse of journalistic privilege” to publish false information whether intentionally or not, violated the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression. The ruling came on a challenge filed by former Daily News Editor-in-Chief Geoff Nyarota and former reporter Lloyd Mudiwa. Both were charged under Section 80 in 2002 after the Daily News ran a story alleging that pro-government militia members had beheaded an opposition supporter. The story turned out to be false, and the newspaper published an apology. While press freedom advocates celebrated the ruling, the government feigned indifference, reminding journalists that the legislation was being amended anyway.

When Parliament finally passed the amended version of AIPPA in June 2003, journalists said the changes only strengthened the government’s power over the press. On the upside, Section 80 was changed to stipulate that it is an offense to “intentionally” or “recklessly” publish false information, putting the burden on the government to prove the falsification was intentional. But the amended law still carried harsh criminal penalties for other vaguely defined offenses, such as publishing information that threatens the “economic interests of the state” and “public morality.” The revised law also included under its definition of mass media products “the total data, or part of the data of any electronically transmitted material.” Journalists said that this addition could include e-mails or Web-based content, indicating the government’s desire to restrict online dissent.

Legalities have not prevented Zimbabwean authorities from finding more direct ways of harassing the press. The most serious attack in 2003 was on Andrew Meldrum, the Zimbabwe correspondent for the U.K-based Guardian, who had lived and worked in Zimbabwe for 23 years. Meldrum had written about Zimbabwe’s deteriorating political and economic climate and police brutality. In early May, Meldrum was forced into hiding when security agents began visiting his house at night. Soon after, he was called to the Immigration Department, where his passport and residence permit were confiscated. Meldrum was later served with a deportation order and told to leave the country. The deportation order, signed by Home Affairs Minister Kembo Mahadi, called Meldrum “an undesirable inhabitant” of Zimbabwe but said it was not in the public interest to disclose why.

Although Meldrum’s lawyer obtained a High Court stay against the deportation, which she presented to officials at the airport, authorities ignored the ruling and forced Meldrum onto a plane bound for London. Meldrum, a U.S. citizen, was the last foreign reporter based in Zimbabwe.

Authorities were particularly sensitive to coverage of political unrest and the country’s severe economic problems. Police arrested and beat Daily News photographer Philimon Bulawayo in March for covering mass demonstrations organized by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Police had also beaten Bulawayo in February, when he attempted to photograph long food lines in Harare, a common sight countrywide that partly stems from the government’s land-reform policies and economic mismanagement. While police arrested journalists who reported on pro-democracy rallies, ZANU-PF supporters attacked vendors who sold critical newspapers and destroyed all their copies.

Though private broadcasters have been legally allowed to operate in Zimbabwe since 2000, authorities have used strict legislation to prevent any from obtaining a license. In September, the Supreme Court struck down the part of the Broadcasting Services Act that made the information and publicity minister the ultimate authority in granting broadcasting licenses. The court said this provision was unconstitutional because it undermined the independence of the authority created to issue broadcast licenses. Zimbabwean journalists, however, said they believe that the ruling will have little immediate impact, and there was no movement on any private license applications at year’s end.

Critical content from independent radio stations based abroad, which use shortwave transmitters to broadcast into Zimbabwe, has infuriated the government. These stations include the London-based SW Radio Africa, the U.S.-based Voice of America’s “Studio 7,” and the Voice of the People (VOP), which broadcasts into Zimbabwe from Madagascar using a Radio Netherlands transmitter. Zimbabwean authorities have tried to jam the signal of SW Radio Africa and have banned six staff members–all Zimbabwean expatriates living in London–from returning to Zimbabwe. In August 2002, unidentified men bombed the offices of the VOP in Harare. Journalists who report for these stations in Zimbabwe are frequently arrested and harassed.

In December, the government announced ambitious plans to counter foreign broadcasters by setting up a new 24-hour shortwave station. Also in December, the pro-government Daily Mirror reported that the government planned to purchase US$5 million worth of equipment to monitor cyberspace, apparently confirming earlier suspicions about the amendment to AIPPA regarding electronic text as a mass media product. Most journalists doubted that the government could follow through on these plans, given Zimbabwe’s shattered economy and poorly valued currency.

Toward the end of 2003, Moyo announced plans to establish a network of community radio stations that would mainly relay agricultural information in local languages to farmers. Though authorities have opposed all previous attempts to set up community broadcasters, state media immediately began touting the benefits of the proposed network. Media rights advocates welcomed the initiative but were skeptical that the stations would have any independence from the government. n