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Bill would restrict public access to official information, says RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders calls for the withdrawal of bill which is about to be submitted to parliament and which would allow the authorities to block public access to official documents including judicial decisions, new legislation and public records.

Announced on 22 October 2010 and called the "General Law Amendment Bill," the proposed law's sole aim seems to be to place additional obstacles in the way of access to information and thereby hamper the work of the media even more.

"Drafted by members of the coalition government's Zanu-PF wing, led by President Robert Mugabe, this bill would just aggravate the already precarious situation for Zimbabwe's media," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said. "It is a political manoeuvre designed to prevent any critical examination of the government's actions."

Julliard added: "The bill is extremely dangerous as it would allow the authorities to adopt unjust measures without anyone knowing and without anyone being able to protest. It shows that the government is rejecting transparency in favour of secrecy and abuse of authority."

Under the proposed law, the publication of any government document would require prior permission from the authorities. A human rights group or a journalist, for example, would need the justice minister's permission to publish a judicial decision affecting the public's rights. This would restrict the ability of ordinary citizens to monitor what the authorities do and, as such, it is contrary to the principles of good governance.

The bill's announcement has coincided with a number of developments in recent weeks that have raised concerns about a renewed crackdown on the media. The government announced at the start of this month that no licences would be issued to new radio or TV stations. Two journalists, Nkosana Dhalmini and Andrison Manyere, were arrested while covering a public debate at the end of last month and were held for two days.

An arrest warrant was issued last week for "The Zimbabwean" editor Wilf Mbanga in connection with an article critical of President Mugabe that was published after the 2008 elections. Mbanga has lived in London for the past six years.

Zimbabwe already has two laws that throttle free expression. One is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), adopted in 2002. The other is the Interception of Communications Act, adopted in August 2007. The coalition government made significant efforts to limit their negative effects earlier this year, for example, by issuing licences to several privately-owned dailies. This bill constitutes a major step backwards.

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