By Gugulethu Moyo
BARELY one month into the new year, the Zimbabwean government had again struck out against journalists, tightening an already restrictive law designed to silence any opposition to the rulin
The message from President Robert Mugabe is clear: in the run-up to the March general election those who dare to speak out against the government will be punished.
Only Uzbekistan and Iran have more oppressive press regimes than Zimbabwe where ridiculing the president or the country’s police or military carries the threat of imprisonment. Journalists can be imprisoned for up to 20 years for reporting ill-defined “falsehoods”.
The main obstacle to freedom of expression in Zimbabwe is the Orwellian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), to which Mugabe signed amendments in early January, thus consolidating his position of power ahead of the election.
Under the revised Act, first passed in 2002, journalists who are not accredited by the state, or who practise after their government licence is revoked, could be fined or imprisoned for two years. The existing law was already a formidable tool against reporters, making impossible almost all normal journalistic activities within Zimbabwe.
It is a catchall legislation that criminalises anyone — even advertisers — practising journalism or publishing a newspaper without a government licence. Ironically, it is similar to laws used by Ian Smith during the Rhodesian era to fight liberation movements and prevent people gaining independence from the colonial regime. These laws are now being re-enacted by the same people they once repressed.
To obtain accreditation an application must be submitted to a Media and Information Commission — a regulatory body whose head is known in Zimbabwean media circles as the hatchet man because of his allegiance to the ruling party and his diligence in enforcing the repressive policies of the state.
Though other anti-media laws made the practice of journalism difficult, lawyers could always fashion a defence of sorts when reporters upset the government with critical articles. Aippa, however, was a major achievement for the state because it allowed the regime to eliminate certain individuals and publications, including Zimbabwe’s most popular daily newspaper, the Daily News.
I was legal adviser at the Daily News for almost three years, until it was shut down by AK-47 rifle-wielding police who marched into the newsroom in 2003. It reappeared briefly in 2004 before the Supreme Court, gave a ruling in February of that year which forced the newspaper to close.
From its launch in March 1999, a watershed year for Zimbabwean politics when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was founded and quickly gained popular support, the paper was a thorn in the side of the Mugabe regime.
While the state-controlled media increasingly propped up the government, Daily News reporters sought out dissenting voices and by March 2000 sales had overtaken those of the Mugabe-approved newspapers. It was a real rejection of propaganda by Zimbabweans.
Then the intimidation and harassment started.
The Daily News offices and printing press were bombed in 2001 after the government’s recently fired Information minister Jonathan Moyo, known among journalists as “Mugabe’s Goebbels”, said the paper was “a threat to national security which had to be silenced”. Assassins were hired to kill — without success — editor Geoff Nyarota.
Newspapers were destroyed on the streets and vendors and readers terrorised and assaulted. One reader was murdered simply because he possessed a copy of the Daily News.
If the government did not like a story, journalists would be picked up and “persuaded” — often violently —- to modify their views. Police would make the arrests without knowing with what the “suspects” would be charged. It really did not matter, since there was a whole raft of repressive legislation to choose from.
The beginning of the end for the Daily News came in January 2003 when the newspaper’s publishers launched a Supreme Court challenge to Aippa, claiming it was unconstitutional to be forced to seek permission from regulators before publishing.
That argument failed and on September 11 the Daily News was ordered to register. The next day the staff were evicted from their offices at gunpoint and two days later police seized the company’s publishing assets.
Court challenges to Aippa are continuing, but if the Daily News is ever allowed to publish again it will be different than before. I can’t imagine many journalists will want to return to a place that was the site of so much trauma.
But there is hope.
Despite what is happening, information still gets out of Zimbabwe. There are weekly newspapers that continue to publish and, as best as they can, criticise the injustice they see around them. Many former Daily News journalists have left the country to set up, or write for, foreign-based publications, working to expose human rights violations taking place in Zimbabwe, a service more crucial than ever as elections approach.
The fact people continue to do this despite the danger, and despite the fact the government still feels the need for further deterrent measures against the press, to me is a sign of hope. As long as Mugabe and his followers feel threatened there is hope.
*Gugulethu Moyo is a former legal adviser to the Daily News and is now a media relations adviser at the International Bar Association in London.