Regime hunts for 'illegal' reporters posing as tourists

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The Independent Online

Robert Mugabe's government said yesterday it was hunting for foreign journalists who had illegally entered Zimbabwe posing as tourists in defiance of a de facto ban on foreign media.

The move came as a Bill aimed at obliterating the freedom of the press finally reached parliament. In unprecedented scenes, two leading members of the ruling Zanu-PF party traded accusations on the floor of the chamber before the debate could begin, and proceedings were adjourned until Tuesday.

The government newspaper, The Herald, quoted President Mugabe's spokesman, who said that a number of foreign journalists had entered on tourist visas and would be rounded up. "Our net is closing in on them and we should be able to account for all of them before the close of the day," the spokes-man, George Charamba, said.

The Herald said reporters from The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian had entered Zimbabwe illegally and were staying in hotels and in "safe houses" belonging to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The MDC denies owning such safe houses. Journalists from The Economist and South Africa's Sunday Times were also in Zimbabwe under the guise of being tourists, according to The Herald.

Under current media regulationsforeign journalists need to be accredited by the government. The Bill being debated by parliament would actually ban foreign journalists from working in Zimbabwe, although the Information Minister would have discretionary powers to admit foreign correspondents for specific events.

Indigenous journalists would be placed on a system of one-year renewable licences. The Bill vests power in a media commission appointed by the minister to decide on accreditation to journalists.

It would also ban journalists from relaying a wide variety of information, including reports of President Mugabe's cabinet meetings, and sets out hefty jail sentences and fines for journalists offending many of its repressive provisions.

Yesterday's sharp exchange between Patrick Chinamasa, the Justice Minister, and Eddison Zvobgo, chairman of the parliamentary legal committee, both senior Zanu-PF members, highlighted the controversy that has dogged Mr Mugabe's plans to restrict the media.

A number of Zanu-PF MPs have resisted the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, saying it was taking Mr Mugabe's campaign to silence critics in advance of March elections too far.

Mr Chinamasa accused Mr Zvobgo of holding parliament to ransom by delaying his committee's report on the constitutionality of the media Bill. Zimbabwean laws provide for the legal committee to study Bills to see whether they are in line with the constitution before they can be passed. Mr Zvobgo in turn accused the government of handling the media Bill in a chaotic manner.