Attacks on the Press 2007: Zimbabwe

It’s the vacuum that illustrates the problem–all of the reporters who have fled, the news outlets that have closed, the stories that have gone unreported. Seven years of government intimidation and deteriorating economic conditions have prompted a steady flow of Zimbabwean journalists to leave the country. CPJ has documented at least 48 journalists as having fled since 2001, although the number is twice that when data from exile organizations is considered. Those ranks include many of the nation’s most prominent reporters, constituting the largest group of exiled journalists in the world, CPJ research shows.

Nyasha Nyakunu, a research officer for the Media Institute of Southern Africa, said government harassment had decreased over the past several years simply because “there are fewer and fewer media workers in Zimbabwe.” But, she said, “the pattern of intolerance remains unchanged.” President Robert Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party have used a battery of restrictive legislation–most notably the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Broadcasting Services Act–to suppress the few remaining independent media outlets. No independent dailies have published since the government forced the Daily News to shut down in 2003. Only four independent weeklies still circulate–The Standard, The Zimbabwe Independent, The Zimbabwean, and The Financial Gazette–and no independent domestic broadcasters have been licensed to operate.

With an official inflation rate of 7,600 percent (other estimates place it at nearly double that), four out of five Zimbabweans live below the poverty line, according to the International Crisis Group, an independent nonprofit that analyzes potential conflict areas. A military-led campaign to slash prices instead produced acute food and fuel shortages in 2007. Few journalists could survive without working for international news outlets or the Zimbabwean media-in-exile–but those who did became targets of government attacks.

AIPPA, considered one of the most repressive media laws in the region, requires all journalists and media outlets to register with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC). In December, parliament passed a series of largely cosmetic amendments to AIPPA and other media laws, a move that Zimbabwe Union of Journalists Vice President Njabulo Ncube likened to putting “lipstick on a frog.” The changes eliminate criminal penalties for lack of accreditation but leave government controls firmly in place.

In practice, MIC grants accreditation selectively based on political considerations, while using AIPPA as a hammer to attack journalists linked to foreign or exile media outlets. In April, police arrested Gift Phiri of the London-based Zimbabwean on charges of practicing journalism without AIPPA accreditation after he was seen covering an opposition rally, Rangu Nyamurundira of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights told CPJ. Phiri, who was beaten in police custody, was acquitted in September in a court in the capital, Harare, according to news reports.

The same law was used against foreign journalists. The correspondent for South Africa’s private E.TV, Peter Moyo, was arrested in February and later fined for filming illegal diamond mining in the eastern region of Manicaland without AIPPA accreditation. Manicaland Bureau Chief Andrew Neshamba and cameraman William Gumbo of the state Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) were charged with “criminal abuse of duty” for assisting Moyo, defense lawyer Victor Mazengero told CPJ. Both ZBC journalists were suspended without pay and stripped of their media accreditation; Gumbo went into hiding in fear of further reprisal, according to local journalists.

Little more than a month later, Alexander Perry of the U.S. newsmagazine Time was detained for 48 hours and accused of lacking proper accreditation while covering a similar story about unregulated gold and diamond dealers.

The government had fired a broadside against foreign media in March when it released a statement threatening correspondents with unspecified reprisals because of supposed bias. The statement, issued by the Ministry of Information and Publicity, singled out prominent correspondents Jan Raath of The Times of London, Peta Thornycroft of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, and the U.S. government-funded broadcaster Voice of America for reporting “fabricated stories.” Thornycroft, a veteran Zimbabwe journalist and 2007 International Women’s Media Foundation award winner, told CPJ that she had applied for AIPPA accreditation several times, but the government never responded. Foreign news outlets including the BBC and the South Africa-based E.TV have either been banned or refused AIPPA accreditation, according to CPJ research. Only four foreign media companies–Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Al-Jazeera, and The Associated Press–were based in Harare in 2007. “All of the correspondents are on a short leash,” said exiled journalist Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean. “The correspondents are all nationals so that the government can control them easier than an international reporter.”

One journalist believed to have leaked explosive footage to foreign media was killed in mysterious circumstances. Edward Chikomba, a former ZBC cameraman, was abducted on March 29 near his home in Harare by a group of armed men and found dead two days later near the industrial farming area of Darwendale, according to local journalists and news reports. Those reports and CPJ sources said Chikomba’s death was likely linked to his alleged leaking of footage showing opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai after he was beaten in police custody in February. The footage aired on several global media networks and sparked international condemnation of Mugabe; it was never shown on state television. The Chikomba murder instilled fear in the local press, especially in regard to collaborating with foreign media.

In September, journalists raised concerns about a purported government document that named 15 independent journalists who were to be “placed under strict surveillance and taken in.” The authenticity of the list–first published by the South Africa-based news Web site ZimOnline–was denied by the government, although at least three of the journalists named had been targets of recent harassment. They included Bill Saidi, editor of The Standard, who received a bullet and a handwritten death threat in an envelope delivered to his office in February.

In a series of interviews with CPJ, Zimbabwean journalists noted that similar lists, all with shadowy origins, had circulated in the past. With presidential and parliamentary elections planned for 2008, some said, government operatives may be seeking to ratchet up tension in the press. Mugabe, in power since 1980, was expected to retain office in the March 2008 vote. “There is little hope for the elections to be free and fair without a free press,” said Geoff Nyarota, former Daily News editor and 2001 CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient.

The Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), publishers of the Daily News and Daily News on Sunday, continued to pursue a Supreme Court case challenging AIPPA’s constitutionality. Sikhanysio Ndlovu, head of the Ministry of Information and Publicity, announced in October that the MIC had named a board to address ANZ’s application to resume publishing.

The country’s private broadcasting industry remained virtually nonexistent. State-run ZBTV proclaimed itself the “station of first choice”–a laughable claim, since it was the only choice for many viewers. In March, state media reports said that the Kenya-based Gateway Communications planned to establish satellite television service in Harare. Those plans had not reached fruition by late year.

Three independent radio stations run by exiled journalists sent signals into Zimbabwe from bases across the globe. They included Studio 7, based in Washington; SW Radio Africa in London; and Voice of the People in Cape Town, South Africa. Forced to be innovative to get around media restrictions, SW Radio Africa began a text-messaging news service that reached 6,500 subscribers. Studio 7 said it expected to launch a similar service.

Applicants seeking domestic radio licenses were ignored or rejected. “Today there are numerous community radio initiatives that have lobbied unsuccessfully for the past three or more years for the liberalization of the airwaves,” said Harare lawyer Chris Mhike in an interview with The Zimbabwe Independent. “Radio Dialogue in Bulawayo, for instance, could go on air tomorrow if the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe … could wake up from its slumber and issue broadcasting licenses.” Government officials told a parliamentary hearing in September that their hands were tied by various Broadcasting Services Act regulations. In October, Information and Publicity Minister Ndlovu told the government daily The Herald that he would work to soften Broadcasting Services Act requirements, and that he would invite new applicants for broadcasting licenses.

In August, parliament enacted a sweeping communication surveillance law. The Interception of Communications Act allows authorities to intercept phone, Internet, e-mail, and postal communications. Despite the country’s devastated economy, the government said it plans to establish a state monitoring center and require telecommunication providers to install systems “supporting lawful interceptions at all times,” the Media Institute of Southern Africa reported. Ndlovu told CPJ the surveillance law will target “imperialist-sponsored journalists with hidden agendas” and “protect the president, a minister, or any citizen from harm.”