Attacks on free media stepped up

BY A CORRESPONDENT HARARE - Compounding the shutdown in December of Voice of the People (VOP), an independent Zimbabwean news production company, and the arrest of its director, police picked up a freelance Mutare journalist, Sydney Saize on January 18. Saize was arrested for allegedly practi

sing journalism without a licence under Zimbabwe’s draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). He was released on Saturday after spending three nights in police custody.

Rashweat Mukundu, Director of the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) said the officer in charge of the case had “conveniently gone to a funeral.”

“They (officials) want to punish him,” Mukundu told IRN. Saize was released after his lawyer, Innocent Gonese, filed an urgent application to compel the State to bring him before the courts., a website founded recently by journalists driven from their country, quoted MISA as saying police accused Saize of filing a story for an independent radio station, Studio 7, that militants of the ruling Zanu (PF) party beat up teachers in Mutare.

AIPPA carries a maximum jail term of two years, and the allied and even more draconian Public Order and Security Act (POSA) carries a five-year term. Both acts are used as major weapons against independent journalists and to silence the nation’s leading independent newspapers.

Saize formerly worked for the banned Daily News, shut down in 2003. Its journalists were all denied accreditation by the regime’s Media Information Commission (MIC). Another Daily News journalist, Kelvin Jakachira, was acquitted in August 2005 on charges of not having a licence after MIC chairman Tafataona Mahoso conceded he had not responded to Jakachira’s application.

VOP Director John Masuku was arrested in a raid in December, when police literally cleaned out his offices. Like Saize, he was held for several days in jail, then appeared in court on charges of violating the Broadcasting Services Act. His lawyer, Tafadzwa Mugabe, said Masuku is due to appear again at the end of March.

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) protested the arrests of Saize and Masuku. “We are deeply troubled by Zimbabwe’s blatant censorship of the Voice of the People, an important news source in a country where independent broadcasters are unable to operate,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. She called for the release of VOP’s equipment, dropping of charges against Masuku, and an end to harassment of the station.

Cooper said Saize’s arrest “for reporting in the public interest” was outrageous. “He should be released immediately and these ridiculous allegations dismissed.”

Reporters Without Borders, which campaigns for press freedom, noted that the MIC had shut down four newspapers in the past three years. It took its orders from the regime and was reduced to operating as an arm of the police.

Masuku’s lawyer told IRN that VOP had no broadcasting equipment, but gathers local news which it feeds to Radio Netherlands for broadcast back to Zimbabwe. It application for a broadcasting licence was turned sown on a technicality, he added.

Mugabe’s administration is persisting with harassment of the independent media despite a sharply critical report by the African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights, an arm of the African Union, which said Zimbabwe repressed freedom of expression.

MISA’s Makundu told IRIN that “all we can do is be ready when broader political change comes to Zimbabwe.” “In the meantime, it is likely that we will see more pressure on the media, with more threats to journalists in the time to come.”

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