Mugabe brands reporters 'terrorists'

By Alex Duval Smith,Africa Correspondent
Saturday 24 November 2001 01:00

The journalist Basildon Peta, who is The Independent's correspondent in Zimbabwe, and five other foreign media workers in the country were accused on Friday of "assisting terrorists'' by President Robert Mugabe's government, a move that could make them liable for the death penalty under legislation tabled earlier this week.

The accusation was immediately condemned by human rights organisations and the Foreign Office. It came five days after Mr Mugabe, who is engaged in a violent campaign to extend his rule of Zimbabwe for a further term, to 26 years, branded several prominent opposition figures "terrorists''. He also claimed that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which has 57 seats in parliament, is a terrorist organisation funded by Britain.

Drawing analogies with the United States's reaction to 11 September, a "government spokesman'' understood to be Mr Mugabe's Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo, wrote in the state-run The Herald: "We would like them [the correspondents] to know that we agree with President Bush that anyone who in any way finances, harbours or defends terrorists is himself a terrorist. We, too, will not make any difference between terrorists and their friends and supporters."

Last night Mr Peta said he was worried for the safety of his family but was emphatic about continuing his work. "If there is one thing I won't do, that is to compromise on telling the truth. They want me to lie, to suppress the truth. It's something that a journalist worth his salt cannot do. We have a responsibility to society.''

Mr Peta, who is also special projects editor of Zimbabwe's independent Financial Gazette, added that working in Zimbabwe was becoming increasingly fraught and dangerous. "The campaign has just become so sustained that we do not know where the next blow is going to come from.''

Apart from Mr Peta, five journalists were named, three of whom work for the British media. The five are: Jan Raath of The Times, Peta Thornycroft of The Daily Telegraph, Angus Shaw of the US news agency Associated Press, who in common with Mr Peta are Zimbabwean citizens, Andrew Meldrum of The Guardian, and Dumisani Muleya of the South African dailyBusiness Day. None is a UK national. The last Harare-based British journalist, David Blair of The Daily Telegraph, was denied an extension to his work permit in July.

Richard Carver, a South African human rights campaigner, was also named by The Herald.

Since the death earlier this month of Cain Nkala, a war veterans' leader, government-orchestrated attacks on MDC supporters and pro-democracy activists have soared in Zimbabwe's townships. Prominent opposition MPs and their supporters have been threatened with death and dozens of members of the MDC have been detained by police. The mood among politically active people is that of operating in an undeclared state of emergency – a situation that is not far from reality given that Mr Mugabe increasingly overrides parliament.

He appears to have decided to ignore his country's commitments to the international community to end violence and stage free and fair elections. A Commonwealth pledge Zimbabwe signed in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, in September to bring land occupations to a peaceful end has been widely flouted.

Last night the editor-in-chief of The Independent, Simon Kelner urged the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, to monitor the threat "and protect those who are endangering their lives to provide fair and balanced reports in the British media on the worsening political climate in Zimbabwe".

The Foreign Office condemned the report in The Herald. "This is a worrying comment for a government spokesman to make, particularly in the light of Zimbabwe's commitment at Abuja to freedom of expression,'' said a spokesman in London.

He added: "An independent media is fundamental to the workings of any democratic country. The eyes of the world are on Zimbabwe. Harassment of journalists will only damage Zimbabwe's reputation further in the eyes of the international community.''

Bronwen Manby of Human Rights Watch condemned the move, "especially the blatant opportunism of using the word terrorist ... The crackdown is clearly getting worse".

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