A legacy of censorship and closure

ZIMBABWE celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday by closing the Bulawayo Press Club to the United States ambassador because his views on Zimbabwe’s crisis might have contradicted those of the regime.

R>The previous day two Botswana television staff were charged with evading immigration controls and “practising journalism without accreditation”. They were following up a foot-and-mouth outbreak story.

A week earlier an Australian journalist covering Hifa had been given 24 hours to leave the country because his accreditation papers were not in order.

US ambassador Christopher Dell was due to address journalists on issues relating to press freedom and governance. This was the topic of his address at Nust earlier on Wednesday. He made the point that economies develop where there is a free trade in ideas. Famines occur in societies where there is a muzzled media. 

This is particularly pertinent as Zimbabwe faces extensive food shortages at a time when the press has been emasculated by a regime mouthing nationalist mantras about land and sovereignty but hiding from the truth — that its policies have spawned unemployment, poverty and decay.

“The best test of truth,” US Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, “is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

Zimbabwe’s rulers are frightened of that competition. They have closed down newspapers whose views — liked Dell’s — proved unpalatable. This enables their monopoly of the daily press and broadcasting to thrive amidst the devastation their policies have wrought. And they lie about its causes.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression,” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says. That includes the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

What is the situation in Zimbabwe? Only those accredited with a state-appointed media commission — virulently hostile to a free press — are permitted to impart ideas. And that commission interferes regularly with newspapers whose opinions offend those in power.

There has even been a fiction propagated that Zimbabwe’s draconian measures promulgated in 2002 match those of Sweden or pale in comparison with the US Patriot Act and Britain’s anti-terrorist legislation.

Sweden exposed that attempted deception by inviting journalists to see for themselves. And any visitor to the US or UK would realise immediately that the media in those countries are sharply critical of their governments.

Even in the Sadc states, where President Mugabe finds kindred spirits, there is greater freedom of expression and impressive economic growth.

Only Zimbabwe has gone backwards and a captive government press must take responsibility for its betrayal of the promise of 1980.

Meanwhile, those responsible for a series of bombings at the premises of the Daily News and Voice of the People radio go unpunished — and, by the look of it, unsought. This is a regime where the president’s officials view their role as threatening independent papers rather than attending to their employer’s tattered image. President Mugabe has initiated a raft of legislative provisions protecting him from incisive comment while he feels free to abuse his critics without constraint. The courts have in many cases failed to uphold the liberties they are charged to protect.

The public media has been privatised by the ruling party which abuses its control by dissembling about the crisis besetting the nation and settling scores with the opposition. Worse still, ideas that could rescue the country from the economic morass the state has created are ignored.

Freedom of expression is fundamental to the protection of other freedoms. So long as Zimbabweans hear only one voice across the land they are unable to make informed electoral choices. They need a free press to learn what options are available to them as they seek to find an escape route from tyranny and penury which represent the pervasive legacy of totalitarian control, censorship and closure.