Zimbabwe’s glimmer of hope for press freedom

Some Zimbabwean journalists say 2003 was the most repressive year for independent journalists. Others claim it was 2008. But no one is yet claiming it was 2009 after a recent series of positive developments for the country’s media.

Last week, the government lifted a ban on the BBC and CNN, a big improvement over last year–when BBC reporters were forced to sneak into Zimbabwe to report on the runoff elections, and two media workers contracted by CNN were thrown in jail for more than a week.

“Journalists continue to be followed, detained and abducted; phones and e-mail messages are intercepted; the output of news from government reminds one of Radio Moscow during the Soviet era,” Geoff Hill, exiled Zimbabwean journalist and author of What Happens after Mugabe?, told CPJ.  “Nevertheless, compared with a year ago, things are better.”

On August 1, Finance Minister Tendai Biti scrapped the punitive “luxury import tax” that had severely crippled The Zimbabwean and The Zimbabwean on Sunday, which were being shipped into Zimbabwe via South Africa. Exiled Editor Wilf Mbanga wrote that the 70 percent luxury import tax forced them to pay over R3 million rand (US$379,747) for the “luxury” of giving Zimbabwe access to information outside state propaganda. Mbanga told CPJ that the recent press freedom developments are “glimmers of hope at the end of very long, dark tunnel.”

Daily News
Daily News

In 2003, the government’s accreditation law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, helped shutter the popular independent Daily News. On September 11 of that year, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court declared the Daily News was violating the act’s provisions and was required to register with the former Media and Information Commission (MIC). The paper’s publishing license was revoked and the paper’s prominent editor and former CPJ award winner, Geoffrey Nyarota, was forced to flee the country.

Nyarota continued his trade with the online Zimbabwe Times in exile; hoping to return one day. Although far from certain, there is a chance that day may come. On Friday, the government notified lawyers for The Daily News that their application for a license to publish had been approved after years of legal wrangling.

But the champagne should remain corked for now. “We have now gained eligibility of the license but not the license itself,” Nyarota told CPJ. The paper’s license will only be reinstated once a new media monitoring body is set up. The MIC was abolished in January 2008. Interviews to create the new monitoring body, the Zimbabwe Media Commission, took place this week but hit a snag amid reports that they were biased toward ruling-party supporters.

Zimbabwean journalists, encouraged by small improvements in the media environment, are taking this moment to fight back against past injustices.

Police snatched up freelance journalist Andrison Manyere and former journalist Jestina Mukoko last December on spurious banditry charges. Both were detained and beaten in custody for more than 90 days, they said. “I think if people commit crimes, which I did not, they should not be treated the way I was treated,” said Mukoko during one of her court sessions. Mukoko launched a Supreme Court challenge in June claiming an infringement of her constitutional rights to liberty, full protection of the law, and freedom from torture. Manyere filed a lawsuit against the state for damages in July.

They are not the only ones. Four independent journalists won a landmark legal case against the government over the legality of the MIC in June. The commission had previously banned the journalists from attending a regional economic summit for not being accredited by the commission. The journalists, through their lawyer, Selby Hwacha, successfully argued that the MIC was abolished in January and had no power to block them. The journalists, however, were still barred entry by security at the summit.

Cautious optimism captures the mood for most journalists reporting on Zimbabwe, both local and in exile. Freelance journalist Columbus Mavhunga put it this way: “When you see a leopard kneeling down you have to remain cautious. It must be just resting to come with vengeance. It must be feeling cornered and is planning new tactics.”