Rusbridger urges papers to boycott Mugabe's fees

Rusbridger, left, has called for a media boycott of Mugabe’s charges

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has called for a total Western media boycott of the Zimbabwe Government’s plan to bring in charges for reporting the country’s affairs.

This week’s report of the announcement by President Robert Mugabe’s Government that newspapers and broadcasters, freelances and agencies will have to pay a sizeable fee to be registered and accredited under new media laws has produced diverse reactions from the UK press.

The Government’s proposals go further, saying that Zimbabwean and international media organisations will also have to disclose detailed financial information and pay 0.5 per cent of the audited annual gross turnover of their local operations to a state-controlled media fund.

For freelances, the charge comes high, about £1,000 – which they are not guaranteed to get back if they are refused registration. A number of news organisations use Harare-based nationals as freelance correspondents.

Rusbridger said: "We ought to have an agreed boycott by all the papers not to pay at all. All Western newspapers and broadcast media should simply refuse to pay this weird form of tax. I would hope we can go to the International Press Institute and get an agreed international position where we just refuse to pay it."

Leonard Doyle, foreign editor of The Independent, has said the paper will not pay but will "operate under the radar".

Doyle said: "We have previously ignored Mugabe’s decrees. Our correspondent, Basildon Peta, is in exile from Zimbabwe and he is now accredited in South Africa as our regional correspondent. He is deeply plugged in across Zimbabwean society so he can report rather well from a distance. And we would send people in "under the radar" as we did last time round.

"We are not paying the charge. It doesn’t matter to us and we wouldn’t even get the application form."

The Times is also thought highly unlikely to pay any charges but would not comment.

But at The Daily Telegraph, deputy foreign editor Francis Harris is taking a more pragmatic view. While not knowing yet whether the Telegraph would pay for accreditation for its correspondent Peta Thorneycroft, who has already been held in jail under the new laws, Harris said: "We pay in a number of countries to get our journalist registered so the principle is not necessarily objectionable – it’s the sum. It is just an awful lot of money but it costs us an awful lot of money to operate in an awful lot of places. The sum is so large it is obviously designed to drive out freelances who don’t have the backing of a news organisation. There can be no other sensible reason for charging such a sum of money.

"It is yet another sign that the Zimbabwean Government is terrified of allowing free and fair reporting of events inside the country and is doing everything in its power to make the life of news reporters extremely difficult. It’s depressing and repetitive but we just continue trying to report regardless." Bosses of the major broadcast news organisations are believed to be holding private talks to discuss a joint approach to the proposed charges.

l The trial of Guardian correspondent Andrew Meldrum in Zimbabwe, for publishing a falsehood, has been adjourned for three weeks for the magistrate to consider a defence request to dismiss the charge.

On Tuesday three journalists, Daily News reporter Guthrie Munyuki, photographer Urginia Mauleke and freelance Newton Spicer, were charged with breaking the country’s security laws.

 

Jean Morgan

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