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Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Zimbabwe: One of the World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist

Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe has been named as one of the 33 leading "predators of press freedom" in the world.

"Whether presidents, ministers, chiefs of staff, religious leaders or the heads of armed groups, these predators of press freedom have the power to censor, imprison, kidnap, torture and, in the worst cases, murder journalists," Reporters Without Borders said.

The organisation pointed out that President Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, uses the country's intelligence and security agencies "to silence all opposition voices" and to "spy on and punish independent media outlets."

Reporters Without Borders in not alone in its criticism of the Zimbabwe government's continuing assault on the media. The World Association of Newspapers recently ranked the country as one of the top three most dangerous places to be a journalist.

The insecurity and crisis within which journalists are working in Zimbabwe is a direct result of how the government deals with the media.

In the recent past, newspaper offices and printing presses have been bombed; journalists have been tortured in police custody and others have been deported or forced to flee the country. Citizens have also had their copies of newspapers seized and have been assaulted by military personnel and the Zanu PF militia if seen with copies of newspapers that are deemed to be critical of the government.

In addition to this, journalists and media services operators or newspaper publishers are required, by law, to apply for registration and be accreditation with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC) before they can be allowed to operate. Even when journalists and media organisation apply for registration and accreditation, there are no guarantees that the MIC will grant this accreditation.

At present a local mass media service operator or publisher is required to pay a registration fee of Zim$600,000 while a foreign mass media service or news agency is required to pay US$12,000. Journalists working for local media houses need to pay a registration and accreditation fee of Zim$25,000 while foreign journalists are required to pay US$100 register fee before they can be allowed to go about gathering and disseminating news. Those Zimbabwean journalists who are working for foreign media organisations are expected to pay US$1,200 in application and accreditation fees.

These exorbitant fees are an additional factor that is challenging the viability of publishing and working as a journalist in Zimbabwe.

The few community newspapers that remain operational in the country will also feel the pinch because in the prevailing economic environment, they are struggling to get revenue and are increasing reliant on donor funding to remain operational.

The fees will also act to discourage freelance journalists from registering with the MIC while the punitive measures that are in place will deter them from practicing without accreditation. For example, between Feb. 1 and July 31, 2005 alone, 49 journalists were arrested under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) for practising journalism without accreditation. Under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill journalists who are caught working without accreditation face prison sentences of up to two years.

Those journalists and newspapers who manage to pay these fees and try to go about their business of gathering, publishing and disseminating news are routinely arrested, detained and harassed by the various arms of the country's security services.

Journalists, especially those who write for international newspapers and magazines, also face harassment and intimidation from government officials who have described them as “traitors” who are being paid to demonise the country and its leaders.

In January 2006, for instance, the Minister for National Security, Didymus Mutasa, told the government-owned Manica Post, ‘It is sad to note that there is a crop of journalists who are selling the country to the enemy by writing falsehoods, with the intention of agitating violence and undermining national security. The net will soon close in.’

In September last year, Mike Saburi, a freelance television journalist, was arrested and jailed after he was caught filming the police assaulting people who were gathering to take part in the trade union protest march in Harare. Saburi was accused of having gone beyond his journalistic work while filming the protest march.

In the month that followed, security agents raided the Harare office of the London-based independent newspaper, The Zimbabwean and seized its import authorisation and old copies of the newspaper.

The year before that, three sports journalists, Robson Sharuko, Tendai Ndemera and Rex Mphisa were dismissed from the government-owned daily newspaper The Herald for contributing to U.S. public radio Voice of America (VOA).

Since 2002, nearly 100 Zimbabwean journalists have been forced into exile.

The Zimbabwe government is also making renewed and concerted efforts to silence the remaining independent newspapers in the country. Recently, the country stripped Trevor Ncube of his citizenship as part of its ongoing campaign to close The Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard, the two independent newspapers that remain operational in Zimbabwe.

At the same time, the MIC is moving to remove Nunurai Jena, who is chairman of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) Chinhoyi branch, from the roll of journalists who are allowed to practice in Zimbabwe and has accused him of peddling anti-government propaganda and "malicious reports" about human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe government has also introduced the Interception of Communications Bill, which allows security agents to intercept and monitor of email, internet access and letters in the course of their transmission through the telecommunications or postal service. The Bill also makes it possible for news materials to be intercepted during transmission and will hinder the operation of journalists and media houses. The Bill also interferes with citizen’s rights to access to information and freedom of expression.

In the Mashonaland East province of Zimbabwe, teachers are reportedly being rounded up by Zanu PF militias and assaulted as part of their 're-education' if they are found in possession of short wave radios which allow them to listen to radio stations other than the government controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) channels. According to recent media reports, a number of teachers have been forced to flee their schools as a result of these attacks. The ZBC has a monopoly on broadcasting in Zimbabwe: there are no private or independent radio or television channels broadcasting within Zimbabwe; those that have tried have been arrested and have had their equipment seized or have had their licences revoked.

These are just a few examples of the treatment journalists and media consumers are receiving from the Zanu PF government.

There are no signs that the situation will improve anytime soon.

Related article: From Turning Pages to Downloading Them, Wilson Johwa, Africa-News.net, January 23, 2007.

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