COLUMN: Zimbabwean press under gov't scrutiny

The media industry in Zimbabwe is treading on the edge of a political precipice, as the country's government has decided to police the media in the days leading up to the presidential election.

In March this year, current President Robert Mugabe will battle with Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the most popular opposition party - Movement for Democratic Change.

The ruling party, ZANU. P.F., through its minister for Information and Publicity in the President's office, Jonathan Moyo, has crafted legislation - Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill. The pending legislation places the media industry in the vice-grip of the minister of Information and Publicity and law-enforcement agencies.

Zimbabwe gained independence almost 22 years ago from Britain but Mugabe, who claims to be a liberator of Zimbabwe, is making his people chafe under the new severe laws that are reminiscent of Ian Smith's Rhodesian government era as well as Apartheid press laws that curtailed the activities of the independent press in South Africa.

The bill was conceived in secret and born without any meaningful consultation with journalists or the public. It will empower government officials to determine who can work as a journalist, what information can be published and how newspapers and broadcasting institutions will be run.

Zimbabwean journalists planning to fight for the revocation of this law in the courts will face adversity, because the Zimbabwe supreme court is too partisan and will render a judgment unpalatable to the professional journalists.

Reacting to the proposed bill, Reyham Masters-Smith, the chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa said, "To be honest, it is sad because as a journalist who practiced in this country for the last 15 years, my heart is heavy that my Christmas present is a bill that will not allow me to do the work that I love."

Hence, the introduction of the information bill will bar the media from writing about facts which if disclosed will be detrimental to the Zimbabwean government's law-enforcement process and national security, inter-governmental relations or negotiations, financial or economic interests of a public body, the government or country or information relating to personal privacy.

To further circumscribe the activities of the media in Zimbabwe, licenses to operate radios and television stations remain a government monopoly. The nation's supreme court had ruled that the airwaves in Zimbabwe are a common commodity.

The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists' secretary general, Basildon Peta, reported that in 2001, 40 cases of independent reporters were recorded as arrested by police or attacked by ruling ZANU. P.F. militants or tortured.

Zimbabwe's most widely read newspaper, the Daily News, was bombed allegedly by state agents in January 2001. The editor of the Zimbabwe Daily News, Geoff Nyarota was arrested twice but charges were later dropped.

Apart from that, three foreign journalists were expelled in the middle of 2001 and the Zimbabwean government banned BBC reporters from entering the country.

Such restrictive measures are signs of insecurity from a government whose support and mandate to rule is on the wane. A true democracy welcomes ideas and views of its people rather than intimidate them into fear.

Journalists should investigate and scrutinize the actions and policies of public officials without fear or favor. It is expected, however, as they do their duty they will offend those found on the wrong side of the law.

The World Press Freedom Committee, in its representations to the Zimbabwean government in mid-2001, urged the Zimbabwean authorities to emulate Ghana in promoting press freedom.

Zimbabwe as a nation was urged to recognize the vibrancy of public debate and that it is the lifeblood of a true democracy. Zimbabwe should fulfill its obligation as a member of the United Nations, to respect Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Zimbabwean government should ensure the safety of journalists and investigate abuses against press freedom and bring to a halt all intimidation against the news. There should be a stoppage to the use of criminal defamation suits against journalists and the scraping from Zimbabwean code those laws that insulate public officials from scrutiny.

Finally, the government should withdraw from further consideration of its proposed freedom information bill, which clearly attempts to muzzle press freedom.

Write to Tafadzwa at


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