Protests at Zimbabwe's hit list of journalists

President Robert Mugabe's relentless persecution of irritants – political opponents, the judiciary, independent journalists – drew fresh howls of protest from around the world yesterday after the publication of a security service hit list. Basildon Peta, The Independent's correspondent in Harare, is identified as the top target.

Mr Peta, a 30-year-old black Zimbabwean, stayed away from his office in the capital yesterday and sought legal protection after colleagues alerted him to the presence there of two plain-clothes police officers.

Mr Peta, special projects editor of the Zimbabwe Financial Gazette, is the latest of many journalists to face pressure but seems to have been singled out for investigative work and for contributing to a British newspaper.

The privately-owned Standard newspaper, which published the list on Tuesday, quoted intelligence sources as saying Mr Peta and four other Zimbabwean journalists were under special surveillance. The paper said they would be "killed or harmed" before presidential elections expected next year.

Others listed were Geoff Nyarota, editor of the Zimbabwe Daily News, Iden Wetherell, editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, and two Standard journalists, the editor, Mark Chavunduka, and the news editor, Cornelius Nduna.

The Secretary of State for Information and Publicity, Jonathan Moyo, dismissed reports of the security service list of targeted journalists as "rubbish, written by lunatics writing rubbish". He added: "I do not comment on rubbish. I am not interested in talking about non-issues."

However, the report is being taken seriously by the Foreign Office in London. A spokesman said: "Britain unreservedly condemns all threats against the independent media.

"A free press is an essential part of any democracy."

The human rights organisation Amnesty International paid tribute to Mr Peta, who is secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, and other independent local journalists who show "real courage" because they are "in the frontline when human rights are being systematically abused and are therefore the first to suffer".

Journalists' organisations expressed alarm at the development. The Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York, said it was "gravely concerned about reports of a government death list in Zimbabwe which includes journalists". The committee added: "While we are still investigating the existence of such a list, what is certain is that independent journalists in Zimbabwe are facing increasing harassment ranging from threats to arrest. In this environment we are extremely anxious about the safety of our colleague Basildon Peta, who is one of Zimbabwe's most respected journalists. That he has been summoned by the Harare police is ominous and cause for considerable concern."

Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) also said it was "extremely concerned" at the existence of a hit list. "The paranoia of the government that sees every journalist as a potential spy, means every press professional runs a serious risk," said Robert Menard, the organisation's general secretary.

"It is unacceptable that the leaders of a country can threaten to physically assault journalists, who are only exercising their right to keep their fellow citizens informed," he added, pointing out that RSF considers Zimbabwe the most repressive country in southern Africa for press freedom.

The report on the alleged security service hit list marks the latest blow to justice and freedom in the former Rhodesia, where Mr Mugabe came to power in 1980 at the end of white rule and proceeded to crush or compromise all opposition for 20 years.

But in February last year, in a referendum, the country's 11 million people resoundingly – and unbelievably for the regime – rejected a range of constitutional amendments. This put wind in the sails of the nascent Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) which gained nearly half of all electable seats in parliamentary elections last June – despite a terrifying campaign of government-orchestrated farm invasions.

Outwitted by democracy, the 77-year-old Zimbabwean leader has turned to violence and intimidation as a means to keep himself – and those who owe him a debt – in power. Nine white farmers, killed by ruling-party militants, have been the most high-profile victims.

* Zimbabwe has suspended beef exports after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was detected near Bulawayo, in Matabeleland.

The southern province produces most of the country's beef, of which the European Unionn imports 9,100 tonnes a year. Fears of an epidemic had risen since land invaders began tearing down fencing at private game ranches last year. The disease is endemic among buffalo on the ranches.

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