President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, startled by balloting that threatened their 28-year rule, unleashed a brutal crackdown on opposition supporters and the press. Veteran journalist Geoff Hill described the weeks between the first round of voting in March and a runoff in June as “the worst time for journalists in Zimbabwe’s history,” a view expressed by numerous foreign and local reporters.
Mugabe, who appeared to have lost the March 29 election, emerged the victor in the violence-plagued runoff three months later as ZANU-PF supporters orchestrated a vicious campaign against people sympathetic to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). About 100 people died in the violence. During the election period, police and security officers used obsolete media laws to jail at least 16 journalists and media support workers—a wave of detentions without precedent in Zimbabwean history—and harass and obstruct at least 23 more, according to CPJ research. The nationwide press crackdown targeted anyone involved with the media: distributors, lawyers who defended journalists, and state broadcasters considered “disloyal” to the ruling party. Facing international condemnation, Mugabe reached a power-sharing agreement with Morgan Tsvangirai in September, but the deal was tenuous in late year and press advocates lamented that it did little to address media repression.
The creation of a unity government was stalled over control of key ministerial posts, including defense, finance, and home affairs. The political situation bordered on farcical: Tsvangirai held the title of prime minister but could not gain access to his own passport. Tragedy, it seemed, was around every corner for suffering Zimbabweans. The economy spiraled out of control as the official inflation rate hit 231 million percent, according to news reports. By December, the country’s situation had deteriorated to the point that soldiers rioted and looted shops, and more than 1,000 people had died of cholera by U.N. estimates. The U.N. World Food Program estimated that half of the Zimbabwean population would need food assistance by 2009.
Press freedom organizations and local journalists criticized the power-sharing deal for not addressing the pressing need to reform Zimbabwe’s media laws. While the agreement contained a provision acknowledging the importance of free expression and encouraging development of private broadcasters, no specific reform measures were outlined. The Broadcasting Services Act prohibits foreign funding or ownership in the broadcasting sector, effectively blocking development of private broadcasters given Zimbabwe’s economic devastation.
Few independent media have operated in the country in recent years, the result of long-running government restrictions. State radio and television dominated the landscape, filling airtime with propaganda supporting the ruling party and vilifying the opposition. No independent daily newspapers and no private broadcast outlets were in operation, and only two prominent independent weeklies continued to publish. Most independent news coverage was provided by exiled Zimbabwean journalists who operated foreign-based Web sites and radio stations based in London, Washington, and South Africa. A small handful of South African newspapers circulated in Zimbabwe.
Ironically, Mugabe’s government acted in January to relax media laws that had been considered among the world’s most restrictive. In talks with the Southern Africa Development Community, a regional trade and security organization, the administration agreed to amend the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, a repressive accreditation law that effectively enabled the government to determine who could and could not report the news. The amendments, passed by parliament, ostensibly allowed Zimbabwean reporters to work without accreditation and eased entry into the country for international journalists. But the government largely ignored the changes, barring most foreign journalists from entering the country for the election and continuing to enforce the obsolete accreditation provisions. In the run-up to the balloting, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission denied entry to international media such as the BBC, CNN, Sky News, and South Africa’s e.tv. In at least 19 cases documented by CPJ, police used outdated sections of the accreditation law to harass, obstruct, or detain journalists.
New York Times reporter Barry Bearak was among those arrested under the outdated accreditation law. “One of my captors, Detective Inspector Dani Rangwani, described my offense to me as something despicable,” said Bearak, who was detained for five days. “I was being charged with the crime of committing journalism.” Human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, recipient of CPJ’s 2008 Burton Benjamin Memorial Award, won a dismissal of charges against Bearak. Her organization, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, took the lead in defending journalists, winning numerous other dismissals. In the face of massive repression by the executive branch, the country’s court system demonstrated a degree of independence. CPJ research shows that at least 16 criminal cases against journalists were dismissed outright by the courts and that no journalist was ultimately jailed longer than one month.
As documented in CPJ’s June special report, “Bad to Worse in Zimbabwe,” the ruling party’s press crackdown was a nationwide phenomenon. At least half of the press freedom violations documented by CPJ occurred in the rural countryside. ZANU-PF supporters intimidated potential news sources in rural areas, making it very difficult for journalists to conduct interviews or gather information. “We can’t go to rural areas to do violence stories as we were able in early April,” said Peta Thornycroft, a Zimbabwean reporter for the London-based Daily Telegraph. “We would bring danger to people who are already in danger. Several contacts have sent messages to us not to come.”
In the suburban towns of Mabvuku and Tafara, ruling party militia assaulted people who were simply reading the private weekly The Standard, the paper reported. In villages in southern Zimbabwe, militias forcefully removed satellite dishes that picked up regional broadcasts from southern Africa.
As the run-off election neared in June, the government obstructed international newspapers by imposing import duties and surcharges of up to 60 percent. For The Zimbabwean, an independent weekly printed in South Africa, the charges totaled 140,000 South African rand (US$17,500) per issue, said the paper’s U.K.-based editor, Wilf Mbanga. The government also imposed price limits on single-copy sales, forcing independent papers to sell at below-market rates. The Zimbabwean endured direct interference as well. In May, suspected security personnel hijacked a truck delivering The Zimbabwean in the southeastern town of Masvingo, beat the drivers, and set fire to the truck with 60,000 copies inside.
A court case against The Standard’s editor, Davison Maruziva dragged on throughout the year. Maruziva spent a night in Harare police custody for publishing a critical April 19 opinion piece written by an MDC splinter group leader, Arthur Mutambara. Maruziva was charged under the oppressive Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which forbids publication of information deemed prejudicial to the state. The case was sent to the Supreme Court in late year. Even uttering a critical remark about Mugabe is a criminal offense under this law. Defense lawyer Harrison Nkomo was arrested in May for purportedly making an insulting statement about Mugabe outside Harare’s High Court. At the time, Nkomo was defending freelance journalist Frank Chikowore who was caught covering an MDC protest rally in one of Harare’s suburbs. The case against Nkomo was dropped after Mtetwa challenged its constitutionality; the case against Chikowore was also dismissed.
In May, the ruling party targeted state journalists who were considered insufficiently supportive, firing Henry Muradzikwa, chief executive of the state Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), and suspending seven employees. Presidential spokesman George Charamba soon directed state media outlets to block MDC campaign advertisements and pro-opposition editorials, according to news reports. Happison Muchechetere, the Mugabe loyalist named as the new state media CEO, ensured pro-Mugabe programming. By June’s end, state media aired only pro-ZANU-PF advertisements and gave limited coverage of the countrywide political violence, the independent Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe reported.
Harassment and detentions of journalists subsided after post-election mediation, although state media continued to broadcast anti-MDC rhetoric and police brutality was still being reported. In July, Associated Press photographer Tsvangirai Mukwazhi was severely beaten by police at his home in Harare and temporarily detained at the Southerton Police Station, journalists told CPJ. Police accused the photographer of “bringing the country into disrepute,” but did not lodge charges against him.
The country’s economic wreckage further weakened the independent press. Fewer independent newspapers were distributed as this harsh environment led to shortages in equipment and newsprint, said The Standard Publisher Raphael Khumalo. In the meantime, the government continued to provide subsidies to state media.
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