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Zimbabwe hounds independent press ahead of presidential elections

Let them eat cake: Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe (left) gestures as he arrives to celebrate his 84th birthday at a huge rally, where he was expected to formally launch his re-election campaign, in Beitbrigde February 23, 2008. Mugabe, in power since independence from Britain in 1980, is seeking another five-year term to extend his grip on the African nation, which is mired in an economic crisis marked by an inflation rate of more than 100,000 per cent and chronic food and fuel shortages.Photo: Reuters / Philimon Bulawayo

The Zimbabwean government is cracking down on independent media with barely one month to go before presidential elections on March 29.

Journalists have been arrested, summoned and ordered to reveal sources, charged with “publication of false news” and newspapers threatened with closure if they fail to comply, in an upsurge of harassment that seriously threatens press freedom ahead of polling,” Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said.

“This is not the first time the police and the sinister Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) have cracked down on the media and opposition,” it said. “They formed the vanguard of the crackdown against journalists in the 2000 elections. These arrests, attempted intimidation and other forms of persecution are aimed at instilling fear among the public in the run-up to the March 29 poll,” it added.

State security agents burst into the offices of the privately-owned weekly the Masvingo Mirror, on February 9, demanding that they reveal their sources for two articles headlined, "Major Mbudzi ties the bell around the Cat’s neck” and "Makoni’s national surgical operation, Mbudzi speaks out". The articles which were carried in the February 8-14 edition, referred to the candidature of former finance minister Simba Makoni, now an opponent of President Robert Mugabe.

“Two men wearing dark suits and sunglasses demanded to know our sources and threatened us with closure if we continued to publish stories that are anti-government and aimed at de-campaigning the ruling party", said the paper’s editor, Regis Chingawo. He added that it was “obvious” that remarks by Mbudzi, spokesman for the presidential party in Masvingo, describing Mugabe as a “bus driver who is nodding off at the wheel and refuses to let anyone else drive” had “infuriated” state security.

A week later, on February 17, heavily-armed members of the anti-riot police arrested independent journalist Fazila Mohammed, who was covering a clash between supporters of two bishops with different political affiliations at Harare’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral. She had her tape-recorder seized before being released. She was summoned to appear at the central police station in Harare on February 18 and was finally released without any charge.

Three journalists working for the weekly the Network Guardian, Blessed Mhlanga, James Muonwa and Wycliff Nyarota, appeared in court in Kwekwe, central Zimbabwe on February 18 charged with “publishing false news” in an article that appeared on March 26, 2006. The judge set the date for their trial as April 15.

Three days later on February 21, the information and publicity minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, threatened to severely punish the weekly the Financial Gazette in Harare if an article referring to dissent within the presidential party was not immediately removed.

“I will not hesitate to institute the necessary corrective measures upon the paper in accordance to our laws,” the minister said. The article said that some party members, who are showing growing defiance, refused to sign the papers needed for Mugabe to be nominated as presidential candidate.

Date posted: February 29, 2008 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 551