Connect to share and comment

Zimbabwe's media battles

Analysis: A free press is a key test of the new power-sharing government.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai shakes hands with President Robert Mugabe at the funeral of General Vitalis Zvinavashe. More cooperation between the two leaders is needed to return press freedom to the country, which many analysts say must go hand in hand with democratic and economic reforms. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Is it possible to have democracy without a free media?

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe clearly thinks so. He has been blocking media reform since a power-sharing government took office in February.

A conference scheduled to chart the way forward for the media, particularly regarding new legislation, was postponed at the last minute after Mugabe’s officials intervened.

The conference had been organized by deputy information minister Jameson Timba, a member of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, who claimed it had been cleared by information minister Webster Shamu, a Mugabe loyalist. But officials in Mugabe’s office made it clear to Shamu that discussion of legislative changes would be unwelcome at this time.

Zimbabwe has some of the most repressive media laws in the world. Most egregious is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) which, until recently, provided for a regulatory commission, appointed by government, to license media houses and journalists.
Despite the abolition of the commission in an Aippa amendment early last year, it continues to pocket large sums from media workers and acts as a supervisory body denying licenses to newspapers.

The Daily News in 2003 was a notable victim of its malevolence. In a few short years, the privately owned paper became the most popular daily in Zimbabwe for its exposes of corruption and state torture. Its circulation exceeded that of the government-owned Herald, which was probably its main offense. Its printing presses were destroyed by massive bombs, its offices hit by a grenade, its editors and journalists beaten by Mugabe's thugs. The Daily News still continued to publish. But the government used its laws to close down the paper for not having proper accreditation. Dozens of journalists were laid off when the paper was denied a license because it had applied to the courts against the need to have one.

The government media commission also plays a disciplinary role. When the editor of an independent publication published a letter from a reader comparing Zimbabweans to a herd of wildebeest that watched while predators picked off their numbers one by one, he received a letter from the chairman accusing him of portraying Zimbabweans as docile animals.

In last year’s election, the commission sent the electoral authorities a list of journalists who, it directed, should not be permitted to cover voting. Several foreign correspondents were arrested and locked up during the poll for working without accreditation.

Legislation passed early last year provides for a new media commission which will only assume its duties when parliament, with its MDC majority, enacts enabling measures. Journalists are mostly opposed to any form of statutory regulation, preferring a voluntary body. But Mugabe is reluctant to let go, at this delicate stage, of the levers of presidential control. This almost certainly explains why the media conference was called off.