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"WORST TIME FOR JOURNALISTS IN COUNTRY'S HISTORY"

Journalists trying to report on Zimbabwe's violent presidential runoff election have faced the harshest press crackdown in memory, veteran reporters told the Committee to Protect Journalists in "Bad to Worse in Zimbabwe," a report released on 23 June 2008.

A day earlier, opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) withdrew from the runoff, saying he could not ask supporters to cast a ballot when "that vote could cost them their lives."

President Robert Mugabe and his administration have used obsolete laws, trumped-up charges and retaliatory measures to detain at least 15 journalists, intimidate sources and obstruct independent news coverage, the CPJ report said. CPJ coordinator Tom Rhodes reported that all types of media workers have been targeted, especially in rural areas wracked with violence by pro-government militants. "This is the worst time for journalists in Zimbabwe's history," exiled Zimbabwean reporter Geoff Hill told Rhodes.

Despite intimidation and threats facing the independent press, citizen journalists are helping gather news, and the South African-printed weekly "The Zimbabwean" recently sold a record 200,000 copies. However, the Mugabe government suppressed 60,000 copies of its June 19 issue, and banned distribution of Sunday newspapers from South Africa on 22 June. According to the African Press Network for the 21st Century (RAP 21), a new regulation could bankrupt such papers because "foreign newspapers, journals, magazines and periodicals are now ironically classed as luxury goods." On 24 May, 60,000 copies of "The Zimbabwean on Sunday" newspaper were torched, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The government's "heavy censorship" spurred the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) to urge the international community to ostracise Zimbabwe. United Nations and African regional organisations should suspend the country for openly violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, said WPFC.

A similar assessment was reached by a fact-finding mission of groups including the Africa office of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the Network of African Freedom of Expression Organisations (NAFEO) that visited Zimbabwe from 8 to 13 June.

The mission "expresses its shock at the level of fear pervading the Zimbabwe media and society at large. The mission talked to journalists who had been arrested on flimsy charges, beaten and had their property confiscated and in some cases destroyed. Journalists operate under the constant fear of being abducted, arrested, detained or beaten up for doing their work."

Laws including the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act are being used to narrow journalists' operating space, the statement added. Unlicensed journalists face a daily task of avoiding arrest, while licensed journalists dare not go outside city centres for fear of security agents and militias. "The combined effect is that Zimbabweans in general lack access to election-related information to empower them to make informed choices."

Media coverage of the presidential run-off campaign slated for 27 June has been "skewed," MISA-Zimbabwe agreed. It especially cited state media and particularly the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).

"Harassment of journalists at the state media is meant to inculcate fear and an unquestioning loyalty," the mission noted. While congratulating journalists and independent newspapers who continued to work and attempt to get both sides of the story, the mission concluded that, under the circumstances, no proper and professional media work can take place to allow for free and fair elections.

"The state broadcaster has without any doubt blatantly and dismally failed to fulfil its obligations of granting equal and equitable access to radio and television to all the contesting parties," MISA-Zimbabwe said. The only coverage accorded the MDC opposition in state media was "vilification through news reports, documentaries and opinion pieces by columnists."

Harassment, arrests and threats against human rights defenders including media and human rights lawyers has worsened the situation. Media lawyers have been arrested and others have fled Zimbabwe fearing for their lives.

On 8 June, police in Matabelel and North province arrested and detained three employees of the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ), accusing them of holding a public meeting without police clearance, MISA reported. They were released three days later.

On 2 June, three South African media workers were sentenced to six months in prison, after being arrested ten days earlier at a police roadblock and found with equipment bearing logos of Britain's Sky News television station. Sky News, a cable and satellite channel, is among the foreign news organisations banned from reporting in Zimbabwe.

On 29 May, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN (WiPC) reported, cast and crew of the satirical play "The Crocodile of Zambezi" were attacked, and the play banned by police in Bulawayo.

Visit these links:
- CPJ special report: http://tinyurl.com/3kjd5x
- World Press Freedom Committee: http://tinyurl.com/4bflva
- RSF on "The Zimbabwean": http://tinyurl.com/4lf9fs
- Rap21 "'Hostile Foreign Press' in Zimbabwe Classified as 'Luxury'": http://www.rap21.org/article19705.html
- MISA: http://www.misa.org/
- MMPZ arrest: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/94406/
- Fact-finding mission: http://tinyurl.com/42lb6g
- Civic and human rights website: http://www.kubatana.net
- International PEN: http://tinyurl.com/49662y
- Exiled Zimbabwean journalists condemn violence: http://tinyurl.com/4fp6fr
- Journalists feel the heat, UN office reports: http://tinyurl.com/42mnav
(24 June 2008)

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