Attacks on the Press 2009: Zimbabwe

Top Developments
• Government fails to implement reforms allowing private media to operate.
• Two international broadcasters allowed to resume operation.

Key Statistic
$32,000: Application and accreditation fees imposed on international journalists.

In a measure of the deplorable state of press freedom in Zimbabwe, a year marked by harassment and obstruction was considered a small step forward. “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, told CPJ.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In African hot spots,
journalists forced into exile

Country Summaries
Other developments

“Nevertheless, compared with a year ago, things are better,” Hill said.

After months of foot-dragging and obstruction, the long-ruling ZANU-PF party led by President Robert Mugabe formed a coalition government in January with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Desperate for foreign aid, the new government deployed Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader and prime minister, to tour the globe in June to seek financial assistance and the lifting of sanctions. His efforts were often undermined by Mugabe’s dismissal of international demands that he loosen his grip on the country’s media. The tenuous coalition government itself nearly collapsed in August as an MDC faction considered breaking with ZANU-PF over what it saw as unfulfilled power-sharing pledges.

Media reform pledges, made as part of the historic power-sharing agreement, were also unfulfilled in many respects. ZANU-PF loyalists continued to harass, detain, and attack journalists—and so, reportedly, did the president’s wife. The year began with news that Grace Mugabe had punched freelance photographer Richard Jones during a Hong Kong vacation. “She had several diamond rings that were acting like knuckledusters,” Jones told The Times of London, describing an encounter as he tried to take her picture. Although Hong Kong authorities investigated, charges against the first lady were never brought.

The same month, the Zimbabwean government announced the imposition of exorbitant fees for visiting foreign journalists and local journalists working for foreign media. Foreign correspondents in Zimbabwe were told to pay an application fee of US$10,000 and a further fee of US$22,000 for accreditation and permits, according to news reports. Local journalists working for foreign media organizations were told to pay up to US$4,000 in fees—an amount few Zimbabweans could afford.

A May conference organized by Minister of Information Webster Shamu was touted as promoting “an open, tolerant, and responsible media environment.” Instead, the government unwittingly demonstrated its own intolerance. The conference, intended for the nation’s journalists, was boycotted by members of the private press in part over the government’s harassment and detention of freelance photojournalist Andrison Manyere, according to the editor of the independent weekly The Standard, Davison Maruziva.

Then, while the conference was under way, police arrested Zimbabwe Independent Editor Vincent Kahiya and News Editor Constantine Chimakure on charges of “publishing falsehoods,” journalists told CPJ. The weekly had published a front-page story naming police officers and security agents involved in the December 2008 arrests of Manyere and several MDC members. A Harare magistrate released Kahiya and Chimakure on bail the next day. The journalists’ defense lawyer, Innocent Chagonda, told CPJ the article was “correct in every respect” and was based on public court records. The case was pending in late year.

Manyere told CPJ that he was kept for months in solitary confinement at Chikarubi Prison, a Harare facility known for its ill treatment of inmates. He was among a large group of people arrested in late 2008, most of them activists, including former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of Peace presenter Jestina Mukoko. Manyere told CPJ he had been beaten, repeatedly blindfolded, and kept in iron shackles. He recounted a harrowing experience in which he saw “a lot of moving skeletons in the prison because there was no food, no blankets, and no clothes.” Manyere, recipient of the 2009 Percy Qoboza Foreign Journalist Award given by the U.S.-based National Association of Black Journalists, said he believed he had been arrested for his coverage of human rights abuses in rural areas. Freed on bail in April, Manyere faced charges of banditry, insurgency, and terrorism in late year. 

The case proved to have numerous tentacles. Manyere’s defense lawyer, Alec Muchadema, was kept overnight at Harare’s Braeside Police Station in May after the Attorney General’s office accused him of colluding with a court clerk to win Manyere’s release on bail, according to media defense lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa. An exasperated Muchadema told the London-based exile radio station SW Radio that “the pattern of lawless intimidation by authorities was systematic and widespread despite the fact that a new inclusive government ruled the country.” In July, Manyere filed a lawsuit against the government, alleging illegal detention.

Journalists continued to win occasional victories in Zimbabwean courts, which have exercised a level of independence over several years. In June, four independent journalists challenged Information Minister Shamu’s directive that all reporters covering the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa summit in Victoria Falls be accredited though the state Media and Information Commission.

The journalists—Stanley Gama, Valentine Maponga, Stanley Kwenda, and Jealous Mawarire—pointed out that the commission had been abolished in January 2008 as part of reforms to the repressive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). High Court Justice Bharat Patel ordered the government to withdraw the accreditation requirement. Despite the ruling, security guards prohibited the four journalists from entering the summit without accreditation, according to local news reports.

The AIPPA reforms also called for creation of a new media regulator, which, with private media representation, could act more independently. The Media and Information Commission was a notoriously repressive agency that had banned several prominent newspapers, including the Daily News, the Daily News on Sunday, the Tribune, and the Weekly Times. But the new regulatory agency had not been established by late year; neither the dormant private papers nor new private publications could obtain licenses to operate. 

In July, a special government committee reviewed the case of the banned Daily News, once Zimbabwe’s leading private daily but shuttered in 2003, according to local news reports. The paper’s exiled editor-in-chief was still waiting for an outcome in late year. “We have not gotten the license yet, only the eligibility for a license,” said the editor, Geoff Nyarota, a former CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee. In contrast, a new state-run tabloid, H-Metro, was allowed to launch in September without a license, according to news reports.

The government also failed to implement reforms to the Broadcasting Service Act, which were enacted in January 2008 to allow private outlets to obtain broadcast licenses. The year ended, as it began, with a virtual state monopoly on broadcast media. The power-sharing agreement had also pledged to ensure the processing of private broadcast licenses, even encouraging exile-run stations to apply.

Conditions did improve for foreign publications after an exorbitant custom duty was lifted in August. Mugabe’s government had decreed in 2008 that foreign publications were “luxury goods” subject to a 40 percent import tax. The fees harmed papers such as The Zimbabwean and its sister publication, The Zimbabwean on Sunday, which were edited by exiled Zimbabwean journalist Wilf Mbanga and printed in South Africa. Mbanga said the paper’s circulation dropped from 200,000 to 60,000 during the time the duty was imposed.

The same month, the government allowed both the BBC and CNN to resume operations in Zimbabwe. The two stations had been banned at the height of Mugabe’s farm invasions in 2001, when the government seized white-owned agricultural property and transferred ownership to ruling party officials. In announcing the decision, Information Minister Shamu said the government and the BBC had “acknowledged the need to put behind us the mutually ruinous relationship of the past,” according to local news reports.

One independent station, Zimbabwe Community Radio, launched from an undisclosed location in March, local journalists told CPJ. The station broadcast in the country’s three main languages: Ndebele, Shona, and English.