Attacks on the Press 2005: Zimbabwe

ZIMBABWE In the run-up to parliamentary elections in March, the government
of President Robert Mugabe further tightened repressive legislation that has been used to drastically reduce the independent media and its freedom to operate. Independent journalists continued to face police harassment, official intimidation, and the constant threat of arrest under the draconian laws. Several more journalists went into exile, joining a growing diaspora and underscoring Zimbabwe’s reputation as one of Africa’s worst abusers of press freedom and human rights. The country’s economy foundered amid skyrocketing inflation, further impeding the few remaining independent news outlets.

Officials with the ruling ZANU-PF party disdain even the concept of a free press. The party’s mouthpiece, The Herald, argued in March that “it does not take a rocket scientist to foresee that the media is irrelevant and ineffectual, particularly in Africa,” and proclaimed in July that “one of the biggest problems Zimbabwe [has] faced over the past five years is the problem of media terrorism.” In February, the ZANU-PF’s Department of Information and Publicity released a booklet listing Zimbabwean “traitors”—including veteran journalists Basildon Peta and Geoffrey Nyarota, both of whom are living in exile, and Trevor Ncube, an exiled journalist and media entrepreneur who is now CEO of neighboring South Africa’s independent Mail and Guardian.

In a special report, “Zimbabwe’s Exiled Press,” CPJ’s Elisabeth Witchel found that at least 90 Zimbabwean journalists, including many of the nation’s most prominent reporters, now live in exile in South Africa, other African nations, the United Kingdom, and the United States, making it one of the largest groups of exiled journalists in the world. The report, published in October, was based on interviews with 34 exiled Zimbabwean journalists, analysts, and human rights advocates. Some of these exiled journalists left as a direct result of political persecution, others because the government’s crackdown virtually erased opportunities in the independent press, according to CPJ’s analysis.

In January, Mugabe signed into law an amendment establishing a two-year prison penalty for violation of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, known as AIPPA. The law makes it a crime to work as a journalist or to run a media outlet without a license from the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC). Since its introduction in 2002, AIPPA has been used to harass dozens of journalists and to shutter newspapers, including the Daily News, which was Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper. Mugabe also signed into law in 2005 the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which introduces penalties of up to 20 years in prison and heavy fines for publishing or communicating “false” information deemed prejudicial to the state. This penalty is significantly heavier than any contained in AIPPA or the Public Order and Security Act, which has also been used to detain and harass journalists since 2002.

Government control of the media is near complete. Zimbabwe today has no independent daily newspapers, no private radio or television news coverage, and only a handful of independent weeklies. Authorities made full use of their dominance in the weeks before the March 31 parliamentary election, restricting opposition access to state media and orchestrating effusive coverage of the ruling party. They shuttered a newly launched private weekly, harassed several well-respected journalists into leaving the country, and hand-picked foreign correspondents for accreditation.

The ZANU-PF party was pronounced the overwhelming winner of the March vote, gaining a two-thirds parliamentary majority that allowed it to push through changes to the constitution. The party lost no time in doing so, enacting amendments almost immediately to further entrench Mugabe’s power and to create a new upper legislative chamber, the Senate, whose members were elected in November. The Senate elections triggered a split within the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) over whether to participate, further weakening that party.

Violence was much less evident during the March campaign than in the national elections of 2000 and 2002, when hundreds of MDC supporters were attacked and scores were killed. Independent observers such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network said that the March vote was seriously flawed, and monitors from the United States and United Kingdom were barred from observing the elections. Nonetheless, a team of monitors sent by the Southern African Development Community, a 14-member group of mostly friendly neighbor states, gave it a clean bill of health. South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki has been heavily criticized, including by journalists in his own country, for failing to speak out publicly on press freedom and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

A month and a half before the March election, three freelance journalists working for foreign media fled the country, fearing arrest by security forces after police repeatedly visited their shared offices. Officials variously accused Angus Shaw of The Associated Press, Jan Raath of The Times of London, and Brian Latham of Bloomberg News, all Zimbabwean citizens, of participating in espionage; lacking proper accreditation; transmitting information prejudicial to the state; and using an unlicensed satellite phone. Cornelius Nduna, another freelance journalist, briefly went into exile in February after police raided his office looking for “sensitive tapes” depicting youth training camps reportedly used to train pro-government militia.

In February, the MIC suspended for one year the publishing license of the newly founded Weekly Times, saying it violated AIPPA by misrepresenting information on its application. MIC Chairman Tafataona Mahoso said the Weekly Times had promised to make social issues a priority but had focused instead on political advocacy. Based in the northern city of Bulawayo, the Weekly Times had covered economic and political problems and provided a platform for the airing of regional grievances.

While no foreign journalists have been allowed to reside full-time in Zimbabwe since 2003, the government allowed foreigners to apply for accreditation to cover the elections, and authorities claimed to have granted hundreds of passes. Yet many journalists were explicitly denied permission to enter the country, including all staff of the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And the limited accreditation was not enough to protect journalists from harassment once they arrived in Zimbabwe; authorities arrested and deported Swedish television journalist Fredrik Sperling the day after the election, despite his accreditation. According to Sperling, he drew authorities’ attention while filming a large farm expropriated by the Zimbabwean government and later occupied by a relative of Mugabe.

Security officials arrested and detained two British staff members of The Sunday Telegraph at a polling station on election day and charged them with violating AIPPA by working without accreditation, leaving them open to two-year jail terms. During their trial, Sunday Telegraph reporter Toby Harnden and photographer Julian Simmonds argued that they had traveled to the country as tourists. They were denied bail and spent two weeks in jail. Represented by media and human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who took up their case, both were acquitted on April 14 and swiftly deported.

Mtetwa, who has defended many journalists under government attack, was a recipient of CPJ’s 2005 International Press Freedom Award for her courage and integrity.

The growing Zimbabwean diaspora boasts a number of media outlets founded by exiled journalists, which the government frequently accused of being fronts for hostile foreign interests. Authorities particularly targeted the British-based independent newspaper The Zimbabwean, which is distributed both inside and outside Zimbabwe and is run by Daily News founder Wilf Mbanga, and the shortwave broadcaster SW Radio Africa, also based in Britain. Before the election, SW Radio’s signal within Zimbabwe was scrambled, a problem that continued throughout the year. The scrambling threatened the broadcaster’s financial survival and raised fears that Zimbabwe was using sophisticated censorship technology from China, an important ally.

On May 18, freelance journalist Frank Chikowore was arrested as he filmed police clearing Harare’s business district of street vendors, and was detained overnight without charge despite holding press accreditation. Chikowore had stumbled across the start of the government’s Operation Murambatsvina, or “Clean Up the Trash,” a brutal, nationwide sweep by security forces to destroy informal housing and commercial structures. The operation left hundreds of thousands homeless and millions facing starvation, according to a U.N. report. Done under the guise of urban renewal, the demolitions were aimed at breaking traditional opposition strongholds, critics said.

A handful of nominally private but pro-ZANU-PF papers continued to publish, in addition to the independent weeklies The Standard and Zimbabwe Independent. In September, the Independent reported that the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) had covertly sought to take over private newspapers and had succeeded in controlling the pro-government Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror by buying majority shares with taxpayer funds, starting in 2002. The article added to Zimbabwean journalists’ fears that the government used secret tactics to control the media in addition to its well-known, overt techniques. The story quickly became a scandal dubbed “Mediagate.”

The Daily News, which was shut down in September 2003, continued its ongoing legal battle for registration throughout 2005. Although the Supreme Court ordered the MIC in March to re-examine the Daily News‘ application, the newspaper remained closed. In a blow to local journalists’ organizations, the same ruling upheld AIPPA as constitutional for the second time, reinforcing fears that purges and government intimidation had successfully eroded the court’s independence.

Although AIPPA has been used to harass and detain dozens of journalists, no successful prosecutions were brought under the law. In August, a lower court in the capital, Harare, acquitted former Daily News journalist Kelvin Jakachira of working for the paper without accreditation from the MIC. The judge ruled that, since the reporter had applied for accreditation, he was entitled to work while awaiting the outcome of his application. The verdict could represent an important precedent for other journalists facing the same charges, including most of the former staff of the Daily News. Jakachira was successfully defended by Mtetwa, the lawyer whose defense of journalists was responsible for most of the rare good news for the Zimbabwean press in 2005.