New York, March 27, 2008—The Zimbabwean government is using journalist accreditation laws to prevent most major international media outlets and some local journalists from covering the country’s elections on Saturday.
According to local journalists and the South Africa National Editor’s Forum, only a handful of foreign correspondents are accredited, while major media groups such as the Associated Press, South Africa’s E-TV, U.S. broadcasters CNN and MSNBC, and Britain’s BBC, among others, have all been blocked from receiving accreditation to cover the elections.
President Robert Mugabe has been in power since 1981 and is running for reelection under the ruling party, ZANU-PF.
“Once again, draconian press laws are being used to silence the press in Zimbabwe despite purported reforms made last year,” said CPJ’s executive director, Joel Simon. “After years of systematic harassment and intimidation of the media, this latest attempt at censorship makes a mockery of the entire electoral process.”
Just five days before the poll on Saturday, government press secretary George Charamba told the pro-government daily The Sunday Mail that a government team was examining 300 accreditation requests from foreign journalists to cover the elections. Many were blocked since “we are aware of attempts to turn journalists into observers, or to smuggle in uninvited observers and security personnel from hostile countries under the guise of the media,” Charamba said.
Local journalists told CPJ that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission plans to station police officers 100 meters (109 yards) from polling areas during the elections, preventing access for all unaccredited journalists.
Despite reforms to last year’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, journalists must acquire two forms of accreditation to cover the elections, once from the Media Information Commission and then from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. The government media body also charges $4,200 to accredit local journalists representing foreign media houses, an amount that effectively blocks local journalists from reporting to foreign media groups considered hostile to the ruling party.
The Zimbabwe Election Commission denied local freelance journalist Hopewell Chino’ono accreditation despite being previously accredited by the Media Information Commission for the duration of 2008, local journalists and the Media Institute of Southern Africa reported.
According to local journalists, police are patrolling political rallies and demanding that journalists present their press credentials. To obtain accreditation, journalists must inform the Media Information Commission of their political affiliation, how much money they earn, and which bank they use, they told CPJ. The stringent accreditation laws set up by the Media Information Commission contravenes Section 20 of the Zimbabwean Constitution that protects press freedom.
Moreover, the Media Information Commission was officially disbanded in last year’s media law reforms and was supposed to be replaced by the Zimbabwe Media Commission.
Despite the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s legal mandate to ensure equitable and fair coverage of the election contestants, local journalists and Zimbabwe’s Media Monitoring Project reported a clear bias by the state media in favor of the ruling party. The national broadcaster ZTV, for instance, devoted nearly five times more coverage to the ruling party ZANU-PF than to opposition parties during the month of February, the Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project reported.
Last September, several journalists raised concerns about a purported government document that names 15 independent journalists to be “placed under strict surveillance and taken in.”