Attacks on the Press 2010: Zimbabwe

Top Developments
• Press makes incremental gains as five private publication licenses are granted.
• Police, ZANU-PF loyalists harass, assault independent journalists.

Key Statistic
0: Broadcast licenses issued to private outlets since 2001.

Regulators granted five private publishing licenses, the first in seven years, opening a window for press freedom in this long-oppressed nation. But police harassment, regulatory intransigence concerning private broadcast licenses, and the government’s unwillingness to pursue legal reforms ensured that the opening remained but a crack.


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Infighting continued to undermine the coalition government of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). President Robert Mugabe vowed to call presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-2011 to “bring an end” to the troubled coalition with the MDC, he announced on state radio in November. He vowed to press ahead with the elections even if constitutional reforms are not completed as required by the power-sharing agreement signed by the two parties in September 2008. The parties had tentatively agreed to call a referendum in 2011 on a constitutional overhaul, with elections to come later. Mugabe’s announcement set the two parties on a potential collision course just two years after the disputed 2008 presidential election led the ZANU-PF to wage a campaign of violence, harassment, and imprisonment against opposition supporters and the press.

The press made incremental gains during the year. The Zimbabwe Media Commission, the new print regulator, established in February, granted licenses in May to five publications, including the independent Daily News, which the government arbitrarily shuttered in 2003 over the objections of the courts. The commission also issued licenses in May to the publishers of a new independent daily, NewsDay; to the ZANU-PF for a new party publication; to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions for a union monthly; and to the publishers of the existing Financial Gazette for a new version, The Daily Gazette.

“We view this as a first step to media freedom,” said Trevor Ncube, publisher of NewsDay, which hit Harare newsstands amid great fanfare in June. “So even though it is a piecemeal achievement, it is still welcomed.” Ncube’s company also publishes two independent Zimbabwean weeklies and a South African weekly. The other new licensees, facing financial hurdles, had yet to publish by late year.

The Zimbabwe Media Commission, created as part of the power-sharing agreement, succeeded the notorious Media and Information Commission, which had overseen the closing of several private print publications in the early 2000s. The new commission includes private media representatives, offering hope of greater independence.

Issuance of the new licenses could ease the tightly controlled media landscape that had for several years included just a small handful of independent weeklies and no private broadcasters. But the same draconian laws long used to censor and control private publications remained on the books, most notably the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which criminalizes the publication of information deemed prejudicial to the state or insulting to the president. Prison penalties run as high as 20 years.

New legislation being considered by parliament in late year would obstruct publication of government documents. The bill, an amendment to the country’s copyright laws, would allow the government to decide whether and how such fundamental documents as statutes and court rulings can be republished, according to news reports. “You can see its uses,” said one local journalist who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity. “If electoral laws are introduced for next year’s polls, we will not be able to publish them no matter how unpalatable.”

While harassment of journalists decreased since the dark days of the disputed 2008 presidential election, independent journalists were still targeted by police and ZANU-PF loyalists. Emblematic of the issue was freelance photojournalist Andrison Manyere, who was detained at least three times by police during the year. In January, police in the capital, Harare, detained him for six hours after he covered a women’s rights march; he was released without charge. In March, police detained Manyere for taking pictures outside Harare Magistrate’s Court of two men accused in an anti-government plot. He was released from police custody the next day after paying a fine on a disorderly conduct charge, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights reported. And in October, police detained Manyere and freelance journalist Nkosana Dhlamini overnight after they tried to cover a meeting about possible constitutional changes, Manyere told CPJ. ZANU-PF youth supporters confronted Dhlamini, believing he was reporting for a U.S. news outlet, and Manyere started to film the altercation. “Police arrived only to take my camera and handcuff me with my fellow journalist,” Manyere told CPJ.

Journalists who contribute to media based outside the country, including both international and exile-run outlets, faced particular obstruction and harassment.

Stanley Kwenda, a contributor to the exile-run weekly The Zimbabwean, said he fled the country in January after receiving a threatening call from a person identifying himself as Chrispen Makedenge, chief superintendent of police. The caller said that Kwenda “would not survive the weekend.” Zimbabwean editor Wilf Mbanga told CPJ that Kwenda had written a recent story about the 2009 death of Makedenge’s wife. Makedenge did not return messages from CPJ seeking comment.

At least 49 Zimbabwean journalists were in exile when CPJ conducted its worldwide survey in June 2010, making it the fourth largest press diaspora in the world. (Only Ethiopia, Somalia, and Iraq have higher numbers of journalists in exile.) Many exiled Zimbabweans have continued to report on their country’s affairs from exile. The Zimbabwean, which is edited in London and South Africa and distributed in Zimbabwe, is one of several such outlets. In November, Zimbabwean police issued an arrest warrant for Mbanga in connection with a 2008 story asserting that senior officials had plotted the murder of an election official. Police said it contained information “prejudicial to the state.” Mbanga said that though The Zimbabwean had covered the murder, it did not publish the story described by police. While the London-based Mbanga would not face immediate arrest, the warrant would be an impediment to his return to Zimbabwe.

Distributors of The Zimbabwean were targeted as well. In February, soon after the paper published a front-page story describing infighting in the ZANU-PF, police detained two representatives of the paper’s distribution company for three hours and briefly charged them under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, local journalists reported. Police eventually dropped the charges.

Authorities also tried to obstruct the exile-run, U.K.-based SW Radio. For two days in September, SW Radio shortwave broadcasts of its news program “Newsreel” were jammed, listeners told the station. Information and Communications Technology Minister Nelson Chamisa said he was unaware of any government jamming, SW Radio reported, although the government has broadly acknowledged jamming in the past.

The government did ease the exorbitant registration fees imposed on foreign correspondents and local journalists working for foreign media. In May, authorities lowered fees for foreign correspondents from US$10,000 to $2,500, and fees for local journalists from US$4,000 to $120.

While the Broadcasting Services Act allows regulators to issue licenses to private broadcasters, none have been approved since the law’s enactment in 2001. “For five years now, Radio Dialogue has been meeting with the government on the issue of community radio licensing,” Peter Khumalo, chairman of the aspiring community station Radio Dialogue, wrote in a public letter to the government at the beginning of the year. “There has been a lot of talk, but no progress whatsoever in implementing the [power-sharing agreement] as far as broadcasting is concerned. We are losing confidence in the inclusive government’s desire, or ability, to complete the liberation of our nation by freeing the airwaves.”

The government’s broadcast regulator, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, was headed by Tafataona Mahoso, a ZANU-PF loyalist. Mahoso was the head of the former Media and Information Council and spearheaded the 2004 closure of the private weeklies The Tribune and sister paper The Weekend Tribune. The broadcast authority did approve a license for the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation to launch a second television station, Channel 2, in May, the pro-government daily The Herald reported.