THE government of Zimbabwe has become
increasingly paranoid about the flow of information in and out of the country and analysts fear this could be part of efforts to narrow democratic discourse ahead of elections next year.
The obsession with information control had led to the closure of critical newspapers and the expulsion from the country of most foreign journalists previously reporting from here, they say.
Several local journalists have been arrested under government’s draconian media laws enacted soon after President Robert Mugabe’s controversial reelection in 2002.
Just last week Foreign Affairs minister Stan Mudenge threatened to shut down United Nations (UN) agencies over their alleged failure to control the flow of information from Zimbabwe. Mudenge accused UN officials of “spreading lies” about Zimbabwe, deepening the rift between the country and the world body.
Mudenge summoned a UN World Food Programme (WFP) representative to his office to explain a report compiled by one of its officials that outlined increasing crime and lawlessness in the country.
“There is a persistent trend of malicious intent on the part of some UN staffers in Zimbabwe who are deliberately demonising this country and its leadership through lies and misinformation,” Mudenge said. “It is unfortunate the United Nations in Harare continues to tolerate people who tarnish the name of Zimbabwe. This is unacceptable to the government.”
A WFP official, Denis Mpanda, whom Mudenge said was “probably drunk”, compiled the report warn-ing of a sharp rise in violent crime, including street robbery, rapes and vehicle hijackings.
“He just sits down, his hang-over gets to him, and he puts it out,” Mudenge said.
He also complained about an official at the UN Development Programme who previously descri-bed Zimbabwe as “a no-go country” where policing was ineffective and the lives of UN personnel were in danger.
Mudenge accused UN officials sympathetic to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change of using their positions to promote a political agenda with “evil intent” against the country.
Mudenge’s comments came soon after UN secretary-general Kofi Annan’s special envoy for humanitarian needs in southern Africa, James Morris, cancelled a planned trip to Zimbabwe, saying neither Mugabe nor his top officials were available to meet him.
In fact officials had been working on plans for the visit for over six weeks.
Mudenge warned the UN that if it continued employing “political zealots who seek the cover of the UN to propagate treacherous messages, then the government would take appropriate action”. He said failure by the world body to control the flow of information from Zimbabwe could lead to the collapse of the UN system in the country.
The government’s obsession with information flow was also illustrated last month when the state proposed new contracts for all Internet service providers (ISPs) meant to force them to block content or to report “malicious messages”.
The contract obliges ISPs to “provide, without delay, all the tracing facilities of the nuisance or malicious messages or communications transported through his equipment and network, to authorised officers of… the government of Zimbabwe, when such information is required for investigations of crimes or in the interests of national security”.
In December Mugabe vowed that Zimbabwe would control the means to get information to its citizens, and emphasised Zimbabwe’s sovereignty. But in March, the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional legal provisions that gave the president powers to eavesdrop or intercept mail, e-mails or telephone conversations.
Despite the court order, the state went ahead and proposed the gagging order for all ISPs.
Information minister Jonathan Moyo recently clashed with Zanu PF spokesman Nathan Shamuyarira over the interview Mugabe had with Sky News of Britain. Moyo said “it was outdated and no longer relevant to think that the only way of speaking to the world is via Sky News, BBC and other colonial mouthpieces”.
He said nothing would be gained by communicating “through colonial, neo-colonial, imperialist and oppositional mouthpieces”. He said it was better to communicate through the “national media”, over which he appears to exercise total control.
Ruling party sources say Shamuyarira, who had organised the Sky News interview, was opposed to Moyo’s policy of shutting out the outside world while bombarding the country with Zanu PF propaganda.
As if to confirm this notion, government two weeks ago shut down another independent national newspaper — the third in less than a year.
The banning of the weekly Tribune came hard on the heels of the forced closure of the Daily News and its sister paper, the Daily News on Sunday in September last year. The Tribune had recently been bought by a consortium of five managers headed by an MP from the ruling Zanu PF, Kindness Paradza. But that didn’t stop the paper from criticising government shortcomings. Paradza, a former journalist, was suspended from Zanu PF last month for criticising Zimbabwe’s restrictive media laws in his maiden speech to parliament in March. He said the laws, which also prohibit private broadcasting, discouraged investment in the media.
The speech was condemned by his party chiefs who accused him of conspiring with Britain against Mugabe.
Paradza said the banning of the newspaper was a “barbaric act” and has vowed to fight it in the courts. He has already sued the Media Information Commission and its executive chairman Tafataona Mahoso for illegally shutting down his paper. The reason given for the closure was that the Tribune had changed ownership and directors without informing the MIC. But Paradza said his paper was being targeted for its independent editorial policy.
Under the new media law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, all news organisations and journalists are required to seek licences from the MIC to operate in Zimbabwe. Scores of Zimbabwean journalists have been refused registration. All foreign correspondents who used to be based in Harare have been expelled.
Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe coordinator Andy Moyse said there were concerted efforts by government to shut down all critical sources of information ahead of the parliamentary ballot scheduled for March next year.
“These are part of moves by government to shut down all democratic space and civil rights,” said Moyse. “It is in fact a campaign to terminate all critical sources of information ahead of the next election.”
Moyse said government would want to have all the democratic space to themselves.
Political analyst and Southern Africa Publishing House chairman, Ibbo Mandaza, acknowledged that there were attempts to control the flow of information from Zimbabwe.
“But we need to look at each case’s merits or demerits,” said Mandaza. “For instance, the case of the closure of the Daily News and the Tribune is still before the courts and it would be sub judice to discuss them. I would rather reserve my comments.”