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Opinion: Harare spring fizzles out

Promise of significant media reforms in Zimbabwe fails to materialize.

Zimbabwe security officers escort President Robert Mugabe past journalists during the African Union summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, June 30, 2008. Mugabe has maintain strict control over the press in Zimbabwe. (Reuters)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — It all looked so hopeful a year ago.

It seemed Zimbabwe's power-sharing government would bring significant liberalization of the restrictive media regulations.

The new government, meeting with journalists at the lake resort of Kariba in May, agreed that the hated press law, AIPPA — the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act — would be repealed and a more friendly media environment established in keeping with the September 2008 agreement between the main political parties and the subsequent formation of a government of national unity.

Media and Information Minister Webster Shamu reached out to journalists at a series of meetings last year and assured them government was addressing the issue of reform. There would be no obstacle to the return of Zimbabwean broadcasters in the diaspora or the issue of licenses to new media houses, he privately assured them.

Meanwhile, CNN and the BBC were given permission to set up bureaus in Harare after a long absence.

But the “Harare Spring” ended in disappointment. The tenor of the state media became increasingly hostile toward Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai who was prime minister in the new government. And nothing more was heard of licenses as the hardliners around President Robert Mugabe rejected any suggestion of reform. Denied access to the official media, the MDC was obliged to resort to handing out samidzats to get its policies across to a public hungry for news.

There would be no progress in the inter-party talks, Mugabe’s Zanu-PF central committee said, so long as what they called “pirate” stations continued to broadcast to Zimbabwe from their studios in Britain, the Netherlands and the United States.

A Zimbabwe Media Commission, responsible for issuing licenses, has now been established but it remains to be seen how much freedom it enjoys. Privately-owned media houses such as Trevor Ncube’s Alpha Media Holdings, which publishes the Zimbabwe Independent and Standard newspapers, have been forced to cool their heels for the best part of a year at huge cost to investors while Mugabe plays a waiting game.

“Every time somebody passes him the ball he runs with it for a while but then kicks it back into touch,” says veteran A.P. correspondent Angus Shaw, using a rugby reference.

One of the reasons European Union sanctions were renewed last month was Mugabe’s refusal to make progress in implementing the 2008 political agreement. All observers are now watching the Zimbabwe Media Commission for some sign of change.