'Hands off the media'

Journalists in Zimbabwe have faced intimidation in the run-up to the presidential election, press freedom groups have confirmed.

A fact-finding mission to the country that included representatives from the International Federation of Journalists, the Southern Africa Editors’ Forum and the Media Institute of Southern Africa, found that the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, the only independent national body for journalists, was also being targeted. There were considerable concerns that their offices would be raided.

In a statement, the IFJ confirmed that three foreign media workers were in prison on charges of breaching broadcasting and telecommunication laws and that a number had been arrested on flimsy charges, beaten and had their property confiscated or destroyed.

Journalists are reportedly in constant fear of being abducted, arrested, detained or beaten up for doing their work. IFJ general secretary Aidan White said: ‘We are deeply concerned that three foreign media staff are in detention and that media support groups have come under official pressure.

‘Now we fear that the ZUJ is in the firing line. It is important that the international community warns the government of Robert Mugabe to keep its hands off media and allow journalists to report freely.”

Four newspapers in Zimbabwe have been banned in the past five years, and, earlier this month, Robert Mugabe’s government imposed a 40 per cent duty on all foreign publications, making it harder for Zimbabweans to get hold of independent news.

In May, a truck carrying 60,000 copies of popular newspaper The Zimbabwean on Sunday from South Africa was petrol-bombed. The Sunday title and its sister weekly, The Zimbabwean have carried detailed reports of political violence since the 29 March elections.

Laws such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act are being used to restrict journalists. Unlicensed journalists face a daily task of avoiding arrest and the unlicensed journalists cannot travel outside the city centres to cover rural areas because of fear of security agents and militia, the report says. The combined effect is that Zimbabweans lacked access to information about the election.

‘Zimbabwean journalists face a difficult operating environment in which they are not only expected to be licensed by a government-appointed Media and Information Commission but have to brave political violence and the challenges of a failing economy,’the report said.

‘Those journalists working for the state media live in fear of being fired or suspended for not showing sufficient enthusiasm for the reporting and coverage of the party in power.”

According to the report, the state media is contributing to political tension, especially by making allegations of political violence allegedly being perpetrated by the opposition without conclusive evidence.

The report claims harassment of state media journalists has been used to ensure their loyalty. Seven journalists from the Zimbabwean Broadcast Corporation have been suspended and its head has recently been fired.

‘The purge of the state media is meant to remove any form of professionalism and create a compliant and unquestioning reporter,’the report said.

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