The state-owned daily The Herald marked President Robert Mugabe’s 82nd birthday in February with a 16-page supplement of photos and “congratulatory messages from government departments.” Such hagiographic and pro-government propaganda dominates the media landscape in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has waged a crackdown on the private press though a series of highly restrictive media laws. Having used these laws to close several of the country’s private newspapers, the government turned its focus to the broadcast sector, jamming overseas radio signals and shutting a local news production company whose reports were transmitted into Zimbabwe via shortwave. They had been an important means of information in a country where radio and television stations are government-owned.
Voice of the People (VOP), a local company that produced news and commentary from an office in Harare, was shut down in a government raid in December 2005. According to local sources, authorities charged three staff members, the company’s director, and six members of the board of directors under the Broadcasting Services Act, which prohibits the possession or use of broadcasting equipment without a license. VOP management said that the company did not own or operate such equipment; staffers produced programs that were then transmitted via shortwave from overseas.
In a victory for the press, a court in Harare threw out the VOP case in September, calling the prosecution a “circus” after a long series of government delays. In a number of press-related decisions over the past four years, Zimbabwean trial courts have demonstrated independence from the executive branch and turned back efforts to enforce some the country’s most arbitrary media restrictions.
The Broadcasting Services Act requires that broadcast media obtain a license, but the government has not issued licenses to any private outlets since the law’s inception in 2001. In January, the Ministry of Information announced it would amend the act to improve distribution of licenses to private broadcasters. Instead of doing so, however, the government sought to restrict the transmission of overseas news broadcasts into Zimbabwe via medium-wave and shortwave. A report in The Herald declared that broadcasters such as the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America (VOA) and the London-based SW Radio Africa had mounted “a one-sided campaign against Zimbabwe and ZANU-PF.”
In June, the VOA said the medium-wave transmission of its popular Studio 7 service, which had been on the air in Zimbabwe for 90 minutes each weekday, was being blocked in Harare.
SW Radio Africa, a station run by exiled Zimbabwean journalists, also said its medium-wave broadcasts were blocked in Harare starting in June. The station added a medium-wave frequency in 2005 to counteract the jamming of its shortwave broadcasts, which began during the March 2005 parliamentary elections.
The government continued to tighten laws criminalizing free expression, increasing in March the fines under the Public Order and Security Act for “presidential insult” and “communicating falsehoods.” In May, ZANU-PF introduced a bill in a parliamentary committee that would empower the government to intercept electronic communications on national security grounds. Local lawyers said the bill was so vaguely worded that it could be used broadly against journalists, political opponents, and human rights activists. Zimbabwe’s deputy minister of information and publicity, Bright Matonga, told the United Nations news agency IRIN that the pending measure was “born out of realization that the Internet has been used to destroy the image of Zimbabwe and that this was made possible by the lack of regulation in cyber-communication.”
The most notorious media law is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, known as AIPPA, which requires all journalists and media outlets to register with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC). The law has been used to silence several local publications, including the Daily News, the country’s only independent daily, and the Daily News on Sunday in 2003. Zimbabwe’s High Court ruled in February that the MIC must reconsider its July 2005 decision to deny registration to the banned papers. But by year’s end, the MIC had yet to rule on the case.
In addition to official harassment, local journalists in Zimbabwe face the daily hardship of scraping together a living amid the country’s economic collapse. Zimbabwe’s inflation rate, the highest in the world, is threatening the financial survival of the country’s remaining private papers, with soaring printing costs and a diminished spending capacity among the population.
The government regularly accuses unemployed journalists of working “illegally” for foreign news outlets, a charge carrying up to two years in prison under AIPPA. In January, police in the eastern town of Mutare detained a former Daily News journalist, Sidney Saize, for three days; he was accused of working illegally for the VOA and filing a “false” story alleging that ZANU-PF members had beaten local teachers. While Saize was released from custody without charges being filed in this case, he faced the same charge of violating AIPPA in connection with his work for the Daily News. Dozens of former journalists for the paper remained in a similar legal limbo.
Soon after Saize’s arrest, State Security Minister Didymus Mutasa was quoted in the government-owned Manica Post as threatening journalists he said were “driven by the love for United States dollars and British pounds, which they are paid by foreign media houses to peddle lies.” He added: “They should be warned that the net will soon close in on all those involved in these illegal activities.”
AIPPA also makes it illegal for foreign correspondents to reside full-time in Zimbabwe, and it serves to restrict the entry of foreign journalists. In April, police in the southwestern border town of Plumtree arrested two journalists from BTV, the state broadcaster of neighboring Botswana. Reporter Beauty Mokoba and cameraman Koketso Seofela were accused of practicing journalism without a license and violating Zimbabwean immigration law. They had traveled to the region to report on an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in local livestock and the possible role of cross-border cattle rustling in driving the epidemic, according to BTV management. The journalists pleaded not guilty to the charges. On November 7, a Plumtree court convicted both journalists and fined each of them 5,000 Zimbabwean dollars (US$20).