Press Freedom Day: Nothing to celebrate for local media

Torture of journalists has continued with apparent approval from some elements in the unity government

Remove punitive duty charged on newspapers which are meant to restrict their circulation in Zimbabwe
press_freedom.jpgDemanding freedom of the press

The coalition government of President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister
Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara has put
media reforms as one of the top priorities on its 100-day action
programme and has lined an indaba for media stakeholders to brain storm
on the way forward on media reform.

But skeptical journalists and human rights lawyers said while the
indaba set for 6-9 May in the resort town of Kariba could be sign of
better things to come, there was very little evidence on the ground
that a new era was dawning for local media with state agents continuing
to arrests and harass journalists, sometimes on trumped up charges.

Walk the talk

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) executive director Irene
Petras said the power-sharing government must walk the talk on media
reform, adding that Zimbabweans would commemorate World Press Freedom
Day today when the enjoyment and respect for media and freedom of
expression rights in the country was in fact on the slide.

Petras said Zimbabwe remained among the worst violators of press
freedom the arrest, assault, detention and torture of journalists that
she said had continued to happen with apparent approval from some
elements in the unity government.

These violations seem to enjoy the tacit approval from some of
elements within the transitional government, said Petras. Andrison
Manyere, a freelance journalist was subjected to unlawful detention,
torture following his abduction by state agents in 2008, she added.

Manyere was part of more than 30 human rights defenders and activists
of Tsvangirai's MDC party kidnapped by state security agents last year
and later charged with committing banditry and terrorism in a bid oust

Legal experts and human rights groups say the charges are trumped up
and a ploy to punish opponents and critics of Mugabe and his Zanu (PF)

Manyere and two others, who were severely tortured while in police
custody were more than a week ago released from jail on bail but the
police have re-arrested the other two accused while Manyere is said to
have fled the country.

Worsening conditions

The Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa
(MISA-Zimbabwe) said the treatment of Manyere as well as criminal
defamation charges levelled by the state against two journalists in
Bulawayo were sign of worsening conditions for journalists despite
promises by the unity government to free the media.

Brezhnev Malaba, editor of the state-owned Chronicle newspaper and his
reporter Nduduzo Tshuma face criminal defamation charges over a story
published by the paper in which the police were accused of ignoring
corruption at the government's Grain Marketing Board.

Media representatives say while members of the public wronged by the
state should be able to sue for damages, the government has often used
criminal defamation laws that carry jail sentences for offenders to try
to intimidate journalists.

MISA-Zimbabwe chairman Loughty Dube said: The continued delay in the
introduction of new media players as well as the continued ban on
previously operational private newspapers are indicative of the urgent
need for holistic democratic media law reform.

Dube singled out the government's Access to Information and Protection
of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Broadcasting and Service Act (BSA), the
Public Order and Security Act (POSA) as well as the Criminal
Codification and Reform Act (CCRA) as laws that needed to be either
completely repealed or comprehensively reviewed.

There is nothing that has changed as far as the media environment is
concerned since the political arrangement of the government of national
unity, said Okay Machisa, the national director of Zim-Rights.
Journalists are still being harassed and the case in point is that of
Manyere, he added.

New constitution

The human rights lawyers and journalists said the new constitution that
the unity government has promised to draft for the country should
expressly guarantee the freedoms of the press and expression.

Petras called for the power-sharing government to immediately begin
processing applications by private investors wishing to start radio
stations, while the administration should also lift bans on several

She said: The parties to the inter-party political agreement must
immediately commence the processing of applications for commercial and
community broadcasting licences, finalise the longstanding application
for registration of the Daily News, and remove the punitive duty
charged on newspapers which are meant to restrict their circulation in

Zimbabwe is widely regarded as one of the most difficult countries in the world for journalists to work in.

In addition to laws requiring journalists to seek accreditation in
order to work in the country, newspapers are also required to register
with the state media commission, with those failing to do so facing
closure and seizure of their property by the police.

The POSA imposes up to two years in jail on journalists convicted of
publishing falsehoods that may cause public alarm and despondency,
while the CCRA imposes up to 20-year jail terms on journalists
convicted of denigrating Mugabe in their articles.


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