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New Press Freedom Blow

Latest independent newspaper closure seen as attempt to stifle debate in advance of elections.
By Ben Takawira

The Zimbabwean government has forced the closure of the Weekly Times, an independent publication less than eight weeks old, making it the fourth private newspaper to be pushed off the streets in the past eighteen months under the country’s harsh media laws.


With parliamentary elections less than five weeks way, Tafataona Mahoso, chairman of Zimbabwe’s Media and Information Commission, MIC, said the title, which was closed last week, had violated its operating licence.


Mahoso, a fervent loyalist of President Robert Mugabe and the ruling ZANU PF party, accused the Weekly Times of “misrepresentations” and “partisan political advocacy”.


The weekly, published from Bulawayo, the country’s second city, had built a circulation of 15,000 after publishing just eight editions.


Weekly Times editor Diggs Dube said Mahoso’s action was politically motivated, with the intention of stifling debate in advance of the March 31 poll. “There’s absolutely no freedom of the press in Zimbabwe,” he said.


Owner Godfrey Ncube said, “This is a political move. It’s got nothing to do with the law. There is no legal basis for closing us down.”


Ncube went on to accuse Mahoso of being a tribalist as well as a Mugabe loyalist. “He is a tribalist we should get rid of,” said Ncube. “I hope the new minister of information will get rid of persons such as Mahoso and impotent organisations such as the MIC [Mugabe has just sacked his minister of information, Jonathan Moyo, and a replacement has yet to be appointed].”


Ncube is a member of the Ndebele, Zimbabwe’s minority tribal grouping, and Bulawayo is situated in Matabeleland, the heartland of the Ndebeles. Mahoso, like Mugabe, is a member of the Shona ethnic group, who comprise nearly eighty per cent of Zimbabwe’s population.


Foster Dongozi, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, said he was gravely concerned at the closure of yet another independent newspaper. “This just shows how insensitive the authorities are,” he told IWPR. “The closure will see many journalists losing their jobs at a time when unemployment and destitution is on the increase.”


Thomas Deve, the Zimbabwe chairman of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, MISA, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting a free press in eleven southern African countries, said it would intensify its challenge to the draconian Access to Information and Privacy Act, AIPPA, the legislation under which Tafataona Mahoso banned the Weekly News, in an effort to allow the newspaper to begin publishing again.


AIPPA effectively makes the continued publication of newspapers and the practice of journalism contingent on the whim of Mahoso and Mugabe. To secure the legal right to publish or work as a journalist, applications have to be made to Mahoso, well known among Zimbabwe’s media as the president’s hatchet man, unfailingly diligent in instituting repressive state policies. AIPPA states that journalists who work without the approval of the MIC’s Mahoso can be imprisoned for two years.


Media organisations around the world protested against the closure of the Weekly Times. Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based organisation dedicated to international press freedom and the protection of journalists, said, “As usual, the Zimbabwean authorities find any old pretext for gagging independent media that might spoil things for them at the height of an election campaign.


“The government does not hesitate to step up repression one month before the March 31 parliamentary election, although it ratified the Southern African Development Community’s protocol on principles and rules for democratic elections which ought, in theory, to guarantee press freedom.”


The crackdown on the newspaper followed intimidation two weeks ago of four Zimbabwean journalists, three of them representing foreign news organisations, who were forced to flee the country or face imprisonment.


Mahoso said he was justified in using AIPPA to close the Weekly Times because its “core values, convictions and overall thrust were narrowly political, clearly partisan and even separatist”. He said the newspaper had “hoaxed” his commission in its licence application by saying it would focus on development journalism. The Weekly Times joins The Daily News, The Daily News on Sunday and The Tribune, another weekly, in the stable of independent newspapers closed down by the MIC.


The final issue of the Weekly Times carried a front-page story about the disappearance of valuable timber-processing equipment from a government depot. A full-page advertisement inside the newspaper, placed by the National Constitutional Assembly, grouping many pro-democracy organisations, denounced the approaching election as a “fraudulent exercise that will neither be free nor fair”.


Mugabe’s government owns the country’s three daily newspapers, which have prevented opposition movements placing political advertisements in the titles. The government also controls all radio and television stations.


Ben Takawira is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.