A Gag is a Gag

A Gag is a Gag
South Africa should speak out on Zimbabwe press clampdown

By Julia Crawford

South Africa
February 12, 2004

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling in Zimbabwe dealt another blow to independent journalism in that country and forced the beleaguered Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only independent daily, back off the streets. The court upheld a restrictive law that allows the government to decide who can be a journalist, and criminalises the practice of journalism by anyone who does not get approval from the authorities.

After driving out most of the foreign press, President Robert Mugabe’s regime seems determined to stifle internal dissent. The notion of a state licensing journalists violates the most basic rights to free expression guaranteed to all people everywhere under international law. Mugabe clearly wants no criticism of his policies and no challenge to his power in the run-up to the parliamentary election expected next year.

Last September¹s shuttering of the Daily News was greeted with silence by the South African authorities. Pretoria does not look about to change its policy of quiet diplomacy. Yet many people believe that a stronger stance by President Thabo Mbeki is one of the few things that might influence Mugabe.

Zimbabwe’s February 5 Supreme Court ruling confirms the restrictive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which came into effect in March 2002. It mandates the registration of all media and the accreditation of all journalists with the Media and Information Commission, whose board is appointed by the minister of communications in consultation with the president.

Mbeki earlier exerted pressure on the Zimbabwean authorities for changes in the Act. He told the SABC in February last year that Harare had agreed to look at what was wrong with it and introduce changes. The Act was amended in June last year, but the changes were largely cosmetic, and Pretoria has not spoken up.

Press freedom organisations inside and outside Zimbabwe strongly condemned the Supreme Court ruling. Indeed, it casts a dark shadow over what remains of the free press in Zimbabwe. The Daily News, which had only just resumed publishing after being shuttered for four months, closed down again for fear that its journalists would be arrested pending their accreditation by the Media and Information Commission. The head of the commission, Tafataona Mahoso, told AFP that the journalists would not be accredited until their paper was licensed. Though the administrative court ordered the commission to register the Daily News in October, the commission has so far refused. In a Catch-22 scenario, one of the reasons the commission cited when it denied the Daily News registration in September, was that it had employed unaccredited journalists.

Over the past four years Harare has pursued a relentless crackdown on the private press, through harassment, censorship and restrictive legislation. It has particularly sought to stifle the Daily News, which is one of the most influential and persistent critics of the government. While cloaking the repression of the free press in a veneer of legal niceties, the authorities have also ignored legal rulings. For example, the administrative court twice ordered the commission to register the paper and allow it to reopen, but police closed the offices as soon as journalists went back to work.

Zanu-PF officials have claimed that the government was not meddling in judicial proceedings. But the authorities were clearly satisfied with the closure of the Daily News. As well as being the only independent daily, the paper is also one of the most persistent and influential critics of the Mugabe regime. The paper was distributed throughout the country and had a wide readership. The only remaining independent papers are weeklies that are confined mostly to urban areas that are already opposition strongholds. Now, most Zimbabweans are left to get their information from pro-government media such as the government daily The Herald.

When asked to comment on the Zimbabwe Supreme Court ruling, South African Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma invoked the principle of sovereignty in refusing to criticise it. Yet sovereign nations are not free to violate the basic human rights guaranteed under international law. Given its own history, South Africa should be the first to denounce the violation of basic human rights in Zimbabwe.

Julia Crawford is Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York.