Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

Broken Promises on Zimbabwe Press Freedom

Busani Bafana

BULAWAYO, May 3 2010 (IPS) - Fourteen months after Zimbabwe’s government of national unity was formed, harassment, arbitrary arrest and general intimidation of journalists remains common.

In a statement issued on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the Zimbabwe chapter of the press watchdog Media Institute of South Africa deplored repressive legislation constraining journalists.

These include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which prevents media organisations from hiring unaccredited journalists; the Public Order and Security Act which has been widely used to prosecute critics of the president, his government and policies; and the Broadcasting Services Act, which sets such complex requirements for registering broadcast media that the government-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation remains the only station on the airwaves.

“These laws are unnecessary and unjustified in a democratic society and should therefore be repealed in line with the principles of the African Charter on Human Rights, Banjul Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa, [and the] SADC Protocol on Information, Sports and Culture and African Charter on Broadcasting,” the statement read.

“The changes to the restricted media space have been cosmetic to say the least,” MISA-Zimbabwe chair, Loughty Dube told IPS. “Journalists still face the same harassment and intimidation that was common before the GNU.”

In January this year, freelance journalist and IPS contributor Stanley Kwenda fled into exile after a senior police officer allegedly threatened him with death over a story.

A correspondent for the government owned Chronicle working in the border town of Beitbridge, Mashundu Netsianda, was arrested for reporting on police officers fleeing gunfire. In March, a Mexican journalist was arrested in Masvingo gathering footage for a World Cup documentary.

Photo journalist Anderson Manyere has become a regular guest in police holding cells and has been arrested for doing his job at least than three times since the start of the year.

Five journalists from the Standard newspaper have been summoned to appear in court in connection with a story about a land scandal involving prominent businessmen Phillip Chiyangwa and the Minister of local government, Ignatius Chombo.

Radio journalist and documentary maker Zenzele Ndebele has also been threatened for his documentary on the “Gukurahundi” atrocities committed by Zimbabwean security services in Matabeleland in the early 1980s.

“Press freedom in Zimbabwe is guaranteed by whoever is in power and that is clear in the manner journalists have to constantly watch their backs each time they write a story or make a broadcast,” said Ndebele.

“Radio Dialogue has been waiting for 10 years for a community radio broadcasting licence and we cannot fully operate as a radio station,” he said.

The announcement by the Zimbabwe Media Commission at the end of April of greatly reduced fees for media registration and calling for media houses and journalists to renew their registration by Jun. 4 has been welcomed by journalists as a small sign of change.

“A free and unfettered media plays a critical role in advancing citizens’ universal right to access to information held by both public and private bodies,” said MISA-Zimbabwe in its statement, “and is a panacea to socio-economic development, accountable governance and political stability.”

Human Rights Watch, which published a critical report on failure on the Zimbabwean government’s failure to protect press freedom in April, warns that credible elections – which President Robert Mugabe has suggested will take place in 2011 – cannot be held in the absence of a free media.

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