HomeOpinionZanu PF hoist by its own petard

Zanu PF hoist by its own petard

By Adam Posluns

FOR the past five years, the government of Zimbabwe has coupled attacks on the political opposition with a systematic clampdown on the independent media.

Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>Authorities have censored press outlets, arrested dozens of journalists on spurious charges and allowed ruling party supporters to attack and harass reporters with impunity.

For the past two years, Zanu PF has used a media-licensing regime to rigidly control the country’s press. The government gets to decide who can be a journalist and which media can operate.

Last September, Information minister Jonathan Moyo, Zanu PF’s feisty spin-doctor, used a licensing pretext to shut down the Daily News,

Zimbabwe’s most popular newspaper and a vocal critic of President Robert Mugabe’s regime.

Last year, the government capped its effective ban on foreign journalists when it defied a court order and forcibly expelled veteran Guardian reporter Andrew Meldrum from the country. Mugabe’s government has remained impervious to criticism from the international community about its treatment of the media.

What quiet diplomacy the country’s African neighbours have tried has caused little stir in the ranks of the ruling Zanu PF. But what may have a bearing on the future of Zimbabwe’s media are the growing tremors within Zanu PF itself.

Last month, the country’s Media and Information Commission (MIC), a government-controlled media licensing and regulatory body, closed a private weekly named The Tribune. The MIC told the newspaper that its licence would be suspended for one year for multiple violations of the country’s draconian press law.

The Tribune’s crimes? Failing to inform the MIC that the paper had new owners, a new title and was now publishing once a week instead of twice.

Given the Mugabe government’s distaste for the private media, it should come as no surprise that authorities would shutter another newspaper with little provocation. But there is something different about this closure, something seemingly nonsensical.

The Tribune is owned by a Zanu PF legislator. Why would the government turn against one of its own?

Zimbabwean journalists say The Tribune’s closure is related to Zanu PF internal politics. Since Mugabe announced to Kenyan journalists in May that he planned to retire when his current term expires in 2008, the latent factionalism in the ruling party has intensified, becoming an apparent succession struggle.

In these power scuffles, Moyo has been pitted against some of Zanu PF’s veteran old guard, including his immediate party superior, secretary for information and publicity Nathan Shamuyarira.The battle between the two officials became public after Shamuyarira invited a British Sky News team to Harare to interview Mugabe in May. Moyo, who saw no reason why “imperialist mouthpieces” such as Sky News should get to talk to the president, vociferously criticised the decision and almost thwarted the interview by trying to have the journalists deported.

Shamuyarira is known to be a friend of The Tribune’s publisher and Zanu PF MP Kindness Paradza. It is widely believed that Paradza entered the party through Shamuyarira’s patronage.

Paradza is also a veteran independent journalist, and during his maiden speech in parliament in March, he criticised the country’s repressive press law, an unheard-of gesture from a member of the ruling party, and one that clearly provoked the ire of the pugnacious Moyo.

The Tribune has also carried some articles that indirectly criticised Moyo, such as one implying that he had used state agencies to appropriate a lucrative farm for himself. Moyo has used the state media to issue thinly veiled attacks on his opponents within the party, and the Tribune articles would easily have been perceived as retaliation.

In this context, it is easy to see why Moyo would use his pet media commission to silence the newspaper. With Mugabe’s retirement on the horizon and elections due next year, the internal jostling for power in Zanu PF is likely to heat up. But senior party officials who oppose Moyo’s high ambitions are sure to face a communication problem, since Moyo has a stranglehold on all state media.

Utilising the few remaining private media to voice their positions is impossible for these officials, as it would be seen as colluding with the enemy. And besides, Moyo can freely revoke the licences of media that criticise him.

It appears that, except for Moyo, Zanu PF’s leaders have become victims of their own repressive media policies. Perhaps these same officials, who have worked so assiduously to stamp out press freedom in Zimbabwe, will understand its value now that they have to cope with the consequences of their actions.

It is unlikely that appeals for greater press freedom will find many sympathetic ears in the government just yet. While Zanu PF remains preoccupied with defeating the country’s political opposition, it will continue to rebuff international criticism of its human rights violations.

The African Union summit of heads of state took place last week in Addis Ababa, but it is unlikely to do more than gloss over Mugabe’s penchant for censorship.

Nonetheless, the international community still has a duty to protest the Zimbabwean government’s abuses, and to pressure Zanu PF to scrap its stifling licensing regime -not in order to gain converts among self-serving politicians who would view greater press freedom as politically expedient, but on behalf of Zimbabwean citizens, who are increasingly losing their ability to speak out against Mugabe’s repressive tactics. – Globe & Mail (Canada).

* Adam Posluns is the research associate for the Africa programme at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international press freedom watchdog based in New York.

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