ZIMBABWE: Media caught in the political vice

zim_media.jpgNo reprieve for independent media
HARARE - As the gap between the fierce political rivalries of Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) narrows, there are fears that the independent media will be squeezed even more.

In the past decade, while Zimbabwe lurched from one political crisis to
another and the economy went into freefall, the independent media were
lambasted by President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government for their
often critical views, and subjected to increasingly repressive media

In January 2009 the Media and Information Commission (MIC), which is
staffed by members of ZANU-PF, began targeting the remaining pockets of
independent media houses and journalists by instituting huge
accreditation fees.

The MIC is meant to be defunct but its replacement body, the Zimbabwe
Media Commission – to be comprised of parliamentary appointees – has
yet to be constituted in terms of a 2008 amendment of the Access to
Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).

The new fee structures mean local journalists employed by foreign media
houses have to pay a US$1,000 application fee, with a further US$3,000
annual accreditation fee.

Temporary accreditation for visiting journalists is pegged at US$500,
while journalists from the Southern African Development Community
(SADC) will pay a "complimentary" accreditation fee of US$150, and
journalists from the rest of Africa will be charged US$200.

All foreign news agencies, including those from Africa, are required to
pay a non-refundable US$10,000 application fee and, if their
application is successful, a further annual fee of US$20,000 to operate
in Zimbabwe, as well as a US$2,000 "complimentary administration fee".

Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, said the new fees were a result of
the president being misquoted by foreign news agencies in December
2008, after he declared the cholera crisis over.

During a live one-hour television broadcast, the 85-year-old president
said the disease had been "arrested", and "So now that there is no
cholera, there is no cause for war anymore. We need doctors, not

His comments came at a time when there were widespread calls for a
military intervention to depose Mugabe, and the cholera death toll
since August 2008 had climbed to more than 700, with over 16,000 cases

According to the UN, up to 4 February 2009, 3,350 people had died from
cholera and 67,567 cases had been reported, including 1,828 new cases
reported in the previous 24-hour period.

Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown has not left the media houses untouched,
and journalists number among the 94 percent of people unemployed,
making it difficult to freelance, as few can afford the fees, or find
work with foreign news agencies.

The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), a body representing the
welfare and rights of Zimbabwean reporters, condemned the new fee
structure as a censorship ploy. "The present government is totally
against a free and vibrant press," ZUJ president Matthew Takaona told

Censorship strategy

"We know that its strategy, after closing down most local newspapers,
radio and television stations that provided an alternative source of
information, is to make it difficult for any critical foreign media to
operate from Zimbabwe," he said.

"We want the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to be
repealed. We are also demanding that the MDC and ZANU-PF stop
proceeding with sections of the Constitutional Amendment Number 19,
which seek to establish statutory regulation of the media through the
proposed Media Commission … Any amendments to the media law must
involve media practitioners," Takaona said.

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told IRIN: "the MDC is strongly against
these punitive regulations, which are an attempt by the regime to
silence the remaining small but vibrant media in the country. Since the
enactment of AIPPA in 2002, the ZANU-PF government has made every
effort to make it difficult for journalists to operate in country –
they have bombed printing presses and closed five newspapers."

Chamisa said the MIC was an "illegal body", and was not entitled to
introduce registration and accreditation fees, and the move had
illustrated a "lack of sincerity" by ZANU-PF in adhering to the terms
of the new unity government.

"The exorbitant fees being touted means that press freedom has been
dollarised, much to the detriment of ordinary Zimbabweans, who are
starved of information," he said.

The exorbitant fees  being touted means that press freedom has been
dollarised, much to the detriment of ordinary Zimbabweans, who are
starved of information

The MDC was party to the AIPPA amendments, but its policy documents
state that it prefers a self-regulated media industry. Journalists were
uncomfortable that neither ZANU-PF nor the MDC had consulted media

Simba Rushwaya, a journalist based in the capital, Harare, said a
settlement among politicians would not automatically translate into an
open media environment.

"That is why, if you examine the power-sharing deal, [you will find
that] other than the right political noises about freedom of expression
and processing applications for registration, it is very vague on
self-regulation and freedom of the media, which should make journalists
very vigilant."


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