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One week ahead of elections, African observers urged not to minimise importance of government control of media

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is an abridged version of a 21 March 2008 RSF press release:

One week ahead of elections, African observers urged not to minimise importance of government control of media

Reporters Without Borders urges the Southern African Development Community observer mission to resist the temptation to minimise the importance of the government's and ruling party's control over the media in the 29 March 2008 general elections. On 20 March, The SADC said "the climate is right to hold elections" even if there were "concerns" about "inequality of media time given to different candidates" and other "irregularities."

"The euphemisms being used by the SADC observers contrast with the appeals for help from Zimbabwean civil society and independent journalists," Reporters Without Borders said. "Even if there is a logic to not confronting President Robert Mugabe and his government head on if you hope for change, you cannot act as if the conditions are in place for these elections to be free and fair."

The press freedom organisation added: "There are real, structural anomalies behind these 'irregularities' - including in the news media - that will not be changed by prudence and discretion. The SADC's final judgment should be based on the principles and rules which it decreed in 2004 for all its members, without exception."

Zimbabweans are to elect a president, senators, house of assembly representatives and town councillors on 29 March. Mugabe, the 84-year-old incumbent president and head of the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), is standing for a sixth term.

The government took a series of measures to tighten its grip on society and the press for the last general elections, in 2002. They included adoption of the AIPPA, an extremely repressive law for regulating independent news media such as the privately-owned "Daily News", whose growing influence posed a challenge to the government's hold over the country.

After the bombing of its printing presses and an unfair prosecution, the "Daily News" was forced to close in 2003. It has not been able to resume publishing since then, despite several favourable court rulings. The AIPPA also regulates journalists very strictly, placing them under the authority of the Media Information Commission, a political entity closely controlled by the government.

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Repression and surveillance of Zimbabwean journalists have continued. Brian Hungwe, a famous Zimbabwean journalist who works for the South African TV network SABC, was stripped of his accreditation - without which a journalist cannot work - in 2007 by the Media Information Commission without any explanation being given.

When Hungwe asked the high court to overturn the MIC's decision, it finally responded that his appeal was not "urgent" although the decision has prevented him from working and earning for more than six months. In desperation, he appealed to the Supreme Court on 18 March.

The climate for journalists in Harare has been made all the more oppressive by the murder of freelance cameraman Edward Chikomba, a former ZBC employee, who was found dead on 31 March 2007, two days after being kidnapped by suspected intelligence officers. His colleagues think he was killed for providing foreign news media with footage showing opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai with his face badly swollen after being beaten in detention.

In September 2007, the Zimbabwean press published what appeared to be the leaked first page of a multi-page intelligence service memo listing at least 15 journalists working for independent news media who were to be subject to "strict surveillance," arrest and other unspecified "measures" in the run-up to the 2008 elections.

To read the complete press release, see:

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