Journalists defy Mugabe's efforts to end free press

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The Independent Online

Zimbabwe's independent journalists, including this correspondent, vowed last night to defy measures being rushed into law by the Zimbabwean parliament that are aimed at shutting down what remains of the free press in the country.

President Robert Mugabe is poised to sign in to law the new legislation being debated last night that would ban foreign correspondents, license local journalists and give police sweeping powers to search and arrest opponents. It is the most repressive law introduced since independence from Britain.

Journalists from four unions will meet today to confirm their united stand in opposition to the legislation and will issue a statement informing the government that the new restrictions are totally unacceptable and will be boycotted.

Those determined to fight the measures include the Daily News, the Standard and the weekly Financial Gazette, whose journalists have been harassed, intimidated and thrown in jail as part of Mr Mugabe's crackdown on the press as he attempts to secure a new presidential term in the March elections.

The law provides for hefty fines and two-year jail terms for those journalists who fail to register with the government for a one-year renewable licence from the Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo, who deported three foreign journalists last year. Journalists will face jail terms for publishing stories on protected information such as cabinet meetings and information held by different government departments.

A journalist can only publish information voluntarily released by a department head. The Bill prescribes heavy fines and two-year jail terms for journalists publishing stories likely to cause "alarm, fear and despondency". However, the scope of these stories is not defined in the Bill. Anything that offends Mr Mugabe might be interpreted as causing "alarm and despondency", as we have seen in the past.

The Bill will also ban stories that discriminate on the basis of political affiliation, sex, religion, beliefs, education and race. The scope of these stories is also not defined. It threatens to jail journalists who practise "unethical journalism" and it bans foreign correspondents from working in Zimbabwe. Most of them have been refused entry into the country anyway.

My career has thrived on my ability to obtain information on Mr Mugabe's confidential cabinet meetings and on exposing his ruling party's distinguished career of misrule. The Bill contains very broad provisions purporting to protect the privacy of individuals. It allows any corrupt politicians to hide under the banner of privacy. Mr Moyo will have the power to veto accreditation for any journalist he does not like.

The net effect of the new law is to reduce any journalist to an official biographer, something I and colleagues such as Daily News editor Geoff Nyarota and Standard editor Mark Chavanduka are not prepared to be.

It reduces all journalists in Zimbabwe to entertainment reporters who can only cover music, films and other events that will guarantee copy that does not cause "fear, alarm and despondency". Seasoned political writers might have to cover Zanu-PF rallies in glowing terms to avoid being penalised under the Bill.

The Zimbabwean government runs television and most radio stations. It is anxious to keep anything but the government line from being publicised. Coupled with the new media bill is the equally draconian Public Order and Security Bill. This will impose life and death sentences on Zimbabweans accused of assisting in terrorism, espionage, banditry, sabotage and treason against Mr Mugabe's government. These offences are not clearly defined in the bill either.

Last year, I was on a "hit list" of journalists drawn up by Mr Mugabe's government, and along with five other reporters was accused of aiding terrorism through our reports in the British press. Mr Mugabe has repeatedly accused Tony Blair of hatching "terrorist" plots to oust his government. He also accuses the British press of conspiring in these plots.

So writing a story for a British media when you are Zimbabwean will inevitably be construed as aiding terrorism.

There is a small glimmer of hope, however. Even though Mr Mugabe has packedthe judiciary with loyalists and has pushed many independent judges into resigning, there is still a chance that no self- respecting judge would actually jail a journalist defying this patently illegal and unconstitutional bill. There is also the hope that the bill may in fact expedite the political demise of Mr Mugabe if he implements its foolish provisions.