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Zimbabwe attempts clampdown on the press

A draconian media bill that will, among other things, allow the Zimbabwe government to solely decide who can work as a journalist and which newspapers are allowed to publish is sure to pass in Parliament. Observers warn that this will effectively silence the media as the country prepares for elections widely expected to be violent and rigged
Rodrick Mukumbira

Tough times await Zimbabwe’s independent media as the government attempts to regulate the industry with a media bill likely to be fast-tracked through Parliament.

Jonathan Moyo, the country’s eloquent Minister of Information, presented the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill in Parliament on January 8, 2002. Moyo, the author of the proposed legislation, believes that the bill will deal with an "apartheid and imperialistic press" that has demonised President Robert Mugabe and his land resettlement programme.

When contacted by Africanews, Moyo said the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party is keen to pass the proposed new bill this month. This legislation would give his ministry the power to decide who can work as a journalist and which newspapers are allowed to publish.

While critics say the bill is the last attempt of the ageing President Mugabe to curb his truly vigorous critics - the press - ahead of the Presidential elections in March, Moyo said the bill is justified, considering the negative publicity emanating from South African and British independent newspapers.

"The press has raised the level of propaganda to what we now find totally unacceptable," he said of an independent daily reporting that the government’s list of recipients of land under a programme targeted at "indigenous" commercial farmers was full of ZANU-PF "who’s who," revealing that the programme lacked transparency.

"What we are saying now is that such newspapers should be brought to book because what they are doing is criminal," Moyo told the country’s state-owned television, which together with two government-owned dailies and two weeklies have access to official comments. "The media should be accountable to society and has to be judged on how well they are conveying messages without distortion and interfering with the right of statement given to people in the constitution."

Domestic and international media have heavily criticized President Mugabe for his crackdowns on the opposition ahead of the election and his controversial seizure of white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks. News organisations have also criticised the proposed media bill, which threatens prison terms for journalists who violate new regulations, and bars foreigners from working as correspondents in the country.

The prospects of the bill passing are very real, said Moyo, considering the majority that ZANU-PF holds in Parliament. "We have to move with haste so that we concentrate on campaigning for the elections," he said.

While it is government media that have access to official comments, the proposed new media bill will make it a crime to rewrite a story that has already been published by another media house. It will also be a crime to criticise the President or "spread alarm and despondency" and disseminate information on behalf of another person who is not part of the mass media service. A two-year jail term could await those who fall afoul of the new regulations.

A media house - local, or a foreign one represented in the country - will be forced to pay contributions to a "media and information fund" whose use will be determined by Moyo. If they fail to contribute to this fund, they risk having their assets seized.

The proposed new bill bans the media from writing on "information whose disclosure will be harmful to the law enforcement process and national security, intergovernmental relations or negotiation, the government or country or information relating to personal privacy."

Journalists working in Zimbabwe will have to be accredited by the Media and Information Commission - to be established under the bill - that will be controlled and appointed by Moyo’s ministry. Ironically, Moyo is wanted in Kenya and South Africa for fraud, yet it will be his prerogative to prescribe the form and manner in which journalists will operate. Accredited journalists will be awarded one-year licences. The minimum requirement to be granted a licence is a degree in journalism, a programme not offered in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s media unions have vowed to ignore the bill and say they will challenge it in court.

Abel Mutsakani, President of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Zimbabwe, said the bill is aimed at achieving one goal: clamping down on dissenting voices ahead of what is expected to be violent and extensively rigged presidential elections in March. "The main reason behind the bill is to crush those Minister Moyo thinks shouldn’t practise journalism," he said. "I don’t expect that I and most other journalists critical to the government would be allowed to practise."

Basildon Peta, Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, is shocked by the content of the proposed new bill, saying it is "obscene and unacceptable. "It won’t surprise me if newspapers are closed down," says Peta. "Government does not want the world to know how it seeks to consolidate its hold on power. It is so cornered that it will attempt to weed out critical journalists."

But President Mugabe’s government has tried and tested terror and intimidation of journalists without any success. Journalists have been arrested and tortured. An independent daily‘s printing press has also been bombed in an attempted to silence it. Zimbabwe’s Media Monitoring Project (MMP) says the law is the last recourse of a government that has failed to block revelations of its responsibility for violence, its contempt of the law, and the economic crisis staring Zimbabweans in their faces.

Riling the ZANU-PF government is the foreign press, particularly CNN, BBC, and British and South African newspapers. Foreign journalists have automatically been blocked from coming into Zimbabwe, and this proposed new bill signifies an era without foreign correspondents in the country. In November, through The Herald newspaper, its propagandist leg-puller, the government accused six journalists working for foreign newspapers of being terrorists. "It is a very short step from labelling someone a terrorist to licensing your supporters to commit violence against them," says MMP.

All throughout the government’s intimidation and terror campaigns, the independent media have continued to highlight incidents of politically-motivated murders being perpetuated by new "graduates" of militia camps in urban centres all over the country. The government-owned press has been mute on such happenings, or, rather, has preferred to ignore the atrocities committed by these youth whose training commenced last year in the name of creating employment.

Meanwhile, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe) has started mobilising against the proposed bill if it successfully passes through Parliament. "This bill creates a situation where there will be an information blackout and it is out position that we should fight it," says Reyhana Masters-Smith, Chairperson of MISA-Zimbabwe.

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