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Pressure Ramped Up on Zimbabwean Media

With state media brought to heel, the authorities are turning on private newspapers.
By Jabu Shoko
As President Robert Mugabe intensifies his crackdown on political dissent in the run-up to the second round of the presidential election, the media have become prime targets.

Journalists have been arrested, articles rejected by the state press, and a shipment of newspapers set alight in the government’s attempts to silence voices critical of Mugabe.

“Under these circumstances, the June 27 presidential election run-off cannot, for all intents and purposes, be called a free and fair contest,” said Gorden Moyo, the executive director of Bulawayo Agenda, a political pressure group.

Analysts fear that Mugabe is going for broke as he fights for re-election and his ZANU-PF party’s political survival. They accuse the government of ignoring the guidelines for democratic elections agreed by the Southern African Development Community, SADC.

By contrast, the first round, held on March 29, took place in an atmosphere of relative calm. The result was a parliamentary majority for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, unchanged even after a recount demanded by ZANU-PF; and a hotly disputed outcome to the parliamentary ballot, ending in a decision to hold a run-off on June 27.

This time round, the gloves are off. Widespread violence by regime supporters and paramilitaries appears to be designed to smash the MDC’s support and organisational capacity, particularly in traditional ZANU-PF heartland areas where the opposition performed unexpectedly well.

MDC rallies have been banned, the latest being two public meetings which party leader and opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai was due to attend in Victoria Falls and Hwange on May 31 and June 1.

Police refused to sanction the rallies, which would have been Tsvangirai’s first public meetings since a long tour abroad. He spent his first week back in Zimbabwe attending funerals and visiting victims of state-sponsored violence, which his party said had cost the lives at least 50 supporters so far.

Meanwhile, the small but vibrant private media sector has come under attack.

On June 1, riot police raided the house of Arthur Mutambara, leader of the smaller faction of the MDC, and arrested him on charges of publishing falsehoods and contempt of court in an opinion article he wrote for the privately-owned Standard newspaper in April.

The Standard’s chief editor, Davison Maruziva, was arrested on May 8 for publishing the article, which accused Mugabe of running down the Zimbabwean economy and pursuing a campaign of terror in rural areas.

Mutambara’s arrest followed the torching of a South African haulage truck bringing in 60,000 copies of The Zimbabwean on Sunday for distribution in the country.

According to the paper’s editor Wilf Mbanga, armed men waylaid the vehicle on May 25 and set it ablaze with its load of newspapers near the town of Masvingo. The driver, Christmas Ramabulana, a South African national, and his assistant Tapfumaneyi Kancheta were badly assaulted and had to be hospitalised.

Kaitira Kandjii, executive director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, MISA, condemned the attack on the truck, noting that it was testimony to the heightened levels of violence targeting critical voices as well as innocent citizens.

“The attack on The Zimbabwean newspaper is a heinous act that demonstrates the breakdown of law and order in Zimbabwe. From reports on the manner in which the attack was orchestrated, it is clear that this was a well-planned and executed political attack, which the state cannot absolve itself from,” said Kandjii, whose group is based in Namibia.

“As of today the state media has been quiet about this incident and the police have not said anything either. This attack is reminiscent of the brutal attacks on The Daily News since 2000 and the bombing of the Voice of the People Communications Trust offices. All these criminal acts … remain unsolved.”

The Voice of the People, an independent radio station, was bombed in August 2002; two years earlier, the printing press of The Daily News was blown up.

Quoting The Zimbabwean’s editor Wilf Mbanga, Kandjii noted that the attack came soon after a leading ZANU-PF official and Mugabe ally, Emmerson Mnangagwa, blamed the newspaper for his party’s electoral defeat.

“Zimbabwe remains a serious cause of concern as a result of the attacks on any forms of free expression, association and dissent,” concluded Kandjii.

Meanwhile, three drivers employed by Britain’s Sky News were given six-month jail terms on June 2 for transporting TV equipment belonging to the broadcaster. Bernet Hasani, Resemate Chauke and Simon Maodi were arrested on May 23 in Matabeleland South. Sky News, like the BBC, CNN and other foreign news organisations, are banned from reporting in Zimbabwe.

Analysts note that the campaign to silence alternative sources of information follow a clampdown on state media. On May 14, the government dismissed Henry Muradzikwa, chief executive at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, ZBC, apparently for failing to slant coverage towards Mugabe and ZANU-PF ahead of the first round of elections. Insider sources say the ZBC got the blame for carrying MDC political adverts that were better than those produced by ZANU-PF.

Muradzikwa’s replacement, Happison Muchechetere, is a senior broadcast journalist at the station and a staunch ZANU-PF loyalist. Within days of taking over, he rejigged ZBC’s schedules to feature programmes glorifying Mugabe’s role in the 1970s war of liberation and demonising Tsvangirai.

In a change to their policy ahead of the March election, state-owned media outlets are now refusing to carry Tsvangirai campaign advertisements and pro-opposition editorials, apparently on the instructions of George Charamba, a senior information ministry official who is Mugabe’s spokesman.

Jabu Shoko is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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