Newspaper’s distributors beaten in Zimbabwe, papers burned

New York, May 27, 2008–CPJ condemns the beating of distributors for private weekly The Zimbabwean on Sunday last week. Unknown assailants hijacked and burned down the distributors’ truck, which was carrying 60,000 copies of the paper.  “Attacking these media workers and burning newspapers is nothing but brutal censorship of one of the country’s last remaining independent news outlets,” said CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator, Tom Rhodes. “We encourage the police, who have already opened an investigation into this attack, to find those responsible and bring them to justice as soon as possible in order to send a signal that violence against the press will not be tolerated.”

On May 24, eight men armed with AK-47 rifles intercepted the truck’s driver, Christmas Ramabulana, and distribution agent Tapfumaneyi Kancheta at Ngunda Halt, about 93 miles (150 kilometers) south of Masvingo. According to The Zimbabwean on Sunday Editor Wilf Mbanga, the armed group took over the 16-gear truck and drove the distributors in separate cars to a remote location in Madamabwe. The assailants beat Ramabulana and Kencheta with rifle butts and left them in the bushes.

Political tensions and violence are on the rise in the country as run-off presidential elections approach on June 27. There have been widespread rumors of election rigging by supporters of President Robert Mugabe. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai spent two months abroad and delayed his return to Zimbabwe until last week, fearing an alleged army plot to kill him.

A police spokesman at the Central Police Headquarters in Harare told CPJ that the police are investigating the attack on the distributors.

Mbanga told CPJ that he suspects the attack was orchestrated by state security agents. The truck was followed by two cars after the distributors dropped off mandatory copies of the newspaper to security and customs agents at the South African border town of Beitbridge. The armed men used rubber gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints and a professional driver was in place to drive the massive truck, he said.

Mbanga and local journalists believe the attack was triggered by a story concerning a leaked police file that documented violence by a ZANU-PF youth militia in Chiweshe, a town roughly 56 miles (90 kilometers) north of Harare in northeast Zimbabwe. The report alleged that Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri was complacent about attacks made by the ZANU-PF supporters.

The Zimbabwean on Sunday and its sister paper, The Zimbabwean, are the highest-selling newspapers in Zimbabwe and are experiencing record sales despite the economic hardships across the country, Mbanda told CPJ. The two papers are edited by Zimbabwean exiles based in the UK, and printed in South Africa.