Free and fair elections are not possible in Zimbabwe

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Free and democratic elections require a free and democratic press, and with the flight from Zimbabwe of Basildon Peta, this newspaper's correspondent there, this condition seems less and less likely to be fulfilled in next month's vote.

When European Union foreign ministers meet on Monday, they should invoke the sanctions that they have threatened to impose if a free and fair election is not possible. The argument over the Zimbabwean government's refusal to issue a visa to Pierre Schori, the head of the EU's election observers, may provide an excuse, but EU ministers should not need an excuse.

It should be apparent by now that next month's ballot will be a travesty of democracy. The Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project, an independent body, publishes a dossier today detailing the Mugabe regime's campaign of intimidation against journalists who do not conform to the government line. And it rightly calls on the international press to desist from publishing smears against independent journalists such as Mr Peta without establishing the facts first.

Mr Peta's attempt to protect his jailers, who showed him some kindness, has been seized on by the state media in Zimbabwe, which have accused him of exaggerating the privation he suffered when he was detained last week. He was accused on national television news of being responsible for a fall in tourist bookings, a claim that briefly eclipsed the equally implausible allegation that the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was plotting to kill Mr Mugabe.

With the state media thus enslaved, freedom depends on the private-sector press. Mr Peta, who has received death threats and whose name featured at the top of a security service hit list, has shown extraordinary courage. We salute him, and welcome his decision finally to put his personal safety first.

The proposed EU sanctions do not go far enough. They amount essentially to a ban on Mr Mugabe and his closest associates travelling to Europe – the withdrawal of the right to go shopping at Harrods.

However, the ministers owe it not just to Mr Peta but to all the brave independent journalists still working in Zimbabwe to send the strongest possible signal to the Mugabe regime. Activating the sanctions they have threatened is an essential first step, and it must be taken now.