Mugabe's allies revolt over press freedom law

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The Independent Online

The Zimbabwean President faced a rebellion by some of his closest allies yesterday when they refused to endorse a media law that seeks to stifle criticism of Robert Mugabe and shut down the free press.

The unexpected revolt in the ruling party's caucus, which could be a turning point for Mr Mugabe, forced the government to postpone the adoption of the Bill for the second time in less than a week.

The delay came after many MPs in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the ruling party, broke ranks by saying they were opposed to Mr Mugabe's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, whose restrictive clauses have sparked worldwide protests.

The Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, had promised that the Bill would be approved, but yesterday he suddenly adjourned parliament without indicating when the measures would be considered next.

There was immediate speculation that Mr Mugabe might bow to international pressure, and that the Bill might be permanently shelved. But analysts cautioned that the recalcitrant MPs might yet be brought into line by Mr Mugabe and forced to push through the Bill or face serious consequences.

Even among the President's cronies, the Bill is viewed as the worst of the repressive legislation passed by Zimbabwe's parliament before the presidential election this March.

A Zanu-PF legislator who attended the caucus meeting said: "We are sick and tired of being used to pass repressive laws aimed at entrenching Mugabe's hold on power while the masses are suffering. We would rather spend time campaigning for Mugabe in our constituencies so that he wins a free and fair election, instead of being used to rubber-stamp laws that violate constitutional rights."

The proposed law would impose stiff jail sentences on Zimbabwean journalists criticising President Mugabe, and require them to apply for annual licences. It would also ban foreign journalists from working in the country or publishing stories that cause "fear, alarm and despondency".

The parliamentary committee responsible for scrutinising Bills and making recommendations to parliament rejected the media law as unconstitutional last week, forcing the Justice Minister to postpone consideration while amendments were drafted.

Yesterday the MPs said that despite some 36 amendmentsthe Bill was still too restrictive, and differed little from the one they had rejected.