Zimbabwe - One week ahead of elections, African observers urged not to minimise importance of government control of media



    MONTREAL, March 21 /CNW Telbec/ - Reporters Without Borders urges the
Southern African Development Community observer mission to resist the
temptation to minimise the importance of the government's and ruling party's
control over the media in the 29 March general elections. The SADC yesterday
said "the climate is right to hold elections" even if there were "concerns"
about "inequality of media time given to different candidates" and other
"irregularities."
    "The euphemisms being used by the SADC observers contrast with the
appeals for help from Zimbabwean civil society and independent journalists,"
Reporters Without Borders said. "Even if there is a logic to not confronting
President Robert Mugabe and his government head on if you hope for change, you
cannot act as if the conditions are in place for these elections to be free
and fair."
    The press freedom organisation added : "There are real, structural
anomalies behind these 'irregularities' - including in the news media - that
will not be changed by prudence and discretion. The SADC's final judgment
should be based on the principles and rules which it decreed in 2004 for all
its members, without exception."
    Zimbabweans are to elect a president, senators, house of assembly
representatives and town councillors on 29 March. Mugabe, the 84-year-old
incumbent president and head of the Zimbabwe African National Union -
Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), is standing for a sixth term.
    The government took a series of measures to tighten its grip on society
and the press for the last general elections, in 2002. They included adoption
of the AIPPA, an extremely repressive law for regulating independent news
media such as the privately-owned Daily News, whose growing influence posed a
challenge to the government's hold over the country.
    After the bombing of its printing presses and an unfair prosecution, the
Daily News was forced to close in 2003. It has not been able to resume
publishing since then, despite several favourable court rulings. The AIPPA
also regulates journalists very strictly, placing them under the authority of
the Media Information Commission, a political entity closely controlled by the
government.

    Biased state media

    The state media, including the national TV station, the Zimbabwe
Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), are well-known for their biased and one-sided
coverage of Zimbabwean politics. The bias has been well documented by
independent organisations such as the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe
(MMPZ).
    In its report on the week of 3-9 March, the MMPZ said : "The government
media's relentless complicity in the creation of a highly uneven electoral
playing field ahead of the March 29 elections was overwhelmingly evident again
this week." It said ZBC had 148 positive reports on ZANU-PF against 19 for all
the opposition parties. In air-time, this represented 1 hour 9 minutes for
Mugabe allies against 17 minutes for all the others.
    The MMPZ acknowledged that new rules issued on 7 March had given the
opposition a little bit more air-time but it pointed out that references to
presidential candidate Simba Makoni, a former finance minister and ZANU-PF
dissident, were systematically accompanied by reminders of his "betrayal" of
the ruling party.
    An SADC delegation met with representatives of the electoral commission
and state media on 14 March but the outcome of the meeting is not known.

    Climate of repression and fear

    Meanwhile, there has been no let-up in the threats hanging over the
independent press. Not content with imposing draconian legislation, the
authorities have ensured that a climate of suspicion and fear of arrest
prevails among Zimbabwean and foreign journalists.
    Even if amendments at the end of 2007 supposedly relaxed the press law,
foreign press accreditation requests have been closely examined by a
nit-picking inter-ministerial committee that is meant to ensure that "spies"
do not "pass themselves off as journalists." Hotel reservation made by foreign
journalists were cancelled by the foreign minister on the grounds that
priority had to be given to the African election observers.
    Repression and surveillance of Zimbabwean journalists have continued.
Brian Hungwe, a famous Zimbabwean journalist who works for the South African
TV network SABC, was stripped of his accreditation - without which a
journalist cannot work - last year by the Media Information Commission without
any explanation being given.
    When Hungwe asked the high court to overturn the MIC's decision, it
finally responded that his appeal was not "urgent" although the decision has
prevented him from working and earning for more than six months. In
desperation, he appealed to the supreme court on 18 March.
    The climate for journalists in Harare has been made all the more
oppressive by the murder of freelance cameraman Edward Chikomba, a former ZBC
employee, who was found dead on 31 March 2007, two days after being kidnapped
by suspected intelligence officers. His colleagues think he was killed for
providing foreign news media with footage showing opposition leader Morgan
Tsvangirai with his face badly swollen after being beaten in detention.
    In September 2007, the Zimbabwean press published what appeared to be the
leaked first page of a multi-page intelligence service memo listing at least
15 journalists working for independent news media who were to be subject to
"strict surveillance," arrest and other unspecified "measures" in the run-up
to the 2008 elections.

    http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26304




For further information:

For further information: Katherine Borlongan, secretary general,
Reporters Without Borders, (514) 521-4111, Cell: (514) 258-4208, Fax: (514)
521-7771, rsfcanada@rsf.org

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