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EMBATTLED MUGABE RESORTS TO VIOLENCE, INTIMIDATION

Foreign journalists and rights activists were detained last week and offices of Zimbabwe's main opposition party were ransacked, ominous signs that President Robert Mugabe will engage in a post-election crackdown in trying to avert threats to his 28-year rule, say the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) and other IFEX members.

Heavily armed riot police surrounded and entered the York Lodge, a Harare hotel popular with foreign correspondents, and arrested five people on 3 April.

"The New York Times" correspondent Barry Bearak, winner of a 2002 Pulitzer Prize, and a freelance journalist from the U.K. were arrested and charged with practising journalism without accreditation, report MISA, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and other IFEX members. The three others, who were not identified, were later released. Bearak and the British journalist were released on 300 million Zimbabwean Dollars bail (US$10,000) after spending five days in detention, says CPJ. Bearak is due to appear in court on 10 April.

According to the Associated Press, Adrienne Arsenault, a reporter for Canada's CBC Newsworld, said she was standing in the driveway of a different hotel earlier on 3 April and was grabbed by riot police. She was taken to a Harare police station but eventually released. The hotel had warned her that police were ordered to be on the lookout for journalists, she said.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says the arrest of journalists is an attempt to sabotage media coverage of the current political crisis and a possible runoff election.

On the same evening police raided offices of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in another Harare hotel. MDC secretary general Tendai Biti told the Associated Press, "Mugabe has started a crackdown. It is quite clear he has unleashed a war."

The police raids came a day after official results showed Mugabe's party had lost control of parliament's 210-member lower house.

"We fear this is the prelude to a government crackdown on the political opposition and civil society in the wake of hotly contested elections," says Human Rights Watch. "Government harassment of the opposition and journalists only serve to inflame the political environment in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe's restrictive journalist accreditation law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, has been used to block international and local reporters from covering the elections. Even two South African broadcast engineers - not journalists - were arrested and accused of practising journalism without accreditation, MISA reports. Only a handful of foreign journalists received accreditation despite 300 requests, says CPJ, and despite the act being amended earlier this year to remove restrictions, says MISA.

In the months leading up to the presidential, parliamentary, senatorial, and local council elections on 29 March, the government cracked down on local and national journalists, shutting down newspapers and allowing members of Mugabe's political party to harass and attack journalists with impunity.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has yet to release results of the presidential election despite increasing international pressure. MDC already asserted its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won the presidency outright, but said it was prepared to compete in any runoff.

Visit these links:
- MISA: http://tinyurl.com/4933jq
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/3w4s6n
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/3qrpuh
- IFJ: http://www.ifj.org/default.asp?index=6023&Language=EN
- International Press Institute: http://tinyurl.com/3rnvqz
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26465
- "Elections Not Free and Fair Without Media Freedom", "IFEX Communiqué", 8 April 2008: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/92143/
- AP via "Toronto Star": http://www.thestar.com/article/410112
(Photo of President Robert Mugabe courtesy of IRIN)

(8 April 2008)

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