The lesson that the world has learnt from Robert Mugabe's rule is that when one cannot improve one's image, one gets rid of all the mirrors. The Mugabe led Zanu-PF government must be counting its gains after the closure of the only privately owned daily newspaper group, the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ). ANZ publishes the Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday.
The ANZ was shut down on Friday 12th September 2003. The previous day, the country's Supreme Court ruled that the newspaper group had to register with the Media & Information Commission (MIC) for its case to be heard in the Supreme Court. ANZ is challenging the constitutionality of sections of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).
Meanwhile, the spectacular failure of the Zanu-PF government in solving the economic, social and political problems affecting Zimbabwe is well documented. Queues for basic commodities are a characteristic feature of every town and city and the cost of goods is sky rocketing - with the official inflation figure pegged at 446.6 percent. For example, a standard loaf of bread costs more than Z$900.00. The minimum wage is pegged at Z$48,000.00 per month. Bank notes are in short supply and the government, through the Reserve Bank, has resorted to printed money in the form of travelers cheques with bank-note security features. Banks are limiting withdrawals to Z$5000.00 per person per day. The country's external debt is estimated at well over US$1,6 billion.
The public is fed with propaganda through state controlled media that the current problems are being caused by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which called for sanctions to be imposed on Zimbabwe. What is not said is that the sanctions are only targeted at 73 Zanu PF officials.
The Zimbabwe dollar rate to the US dollar is Z$5500. This makes a mockery of government's official rate of Z$824 to the US dollar. The food security situation is worsening. Recent estimates from the Food Security Network, a network of non- governmental organisations monitoring the agricultural situation in the country's 58 districts, show that the situation is likely to get worse unless there is intervention from the international donor community.
The health sector is tottering. Government hospitals, the only ones charging affordable fees, are now dying zones for the sick. There are no drugs or equipment. The private sector has taken advantage of this by escalating the costs of medical services to the total exclusion of the working class.
Teachers and lecturers are on strike most of the time. The University of Zimbabwe (UZ) released July examination results in September because of the strike by lecturers. University graduates have to contend with the fact that the unemployment rate is over 70 percent. Youths have been turned into militia - thanks to the National Youth Service programme run by the Ministry of Gender and Employment Creation. The programme is being extended to civil servants, especially teachers.
The Human Rights NGO Forum notes that high levels of human rights violations continue to prevail, some of them consequent on laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA). This has been accompanied by the establishment of a culture of impunity presided over by a seemingly partisan police force. State agents have been frequently reported as being perpetrators of human rights violations themselves. There has been continued inter-party violence as a result of political intolerance. Victimization on the basis of political affiliation remains a common phenomenon.
Elections have, since the Parliamentary Elections in June 2000, been accompanied by organized violence and intimidation. The electorate's freedom of choice in electing representatives in all these elections has been heavily constrained by victimisation of potential voters on the basis of their political affiliation. There have been reports of supplying food in exchange for votes and the use of retributive force where voters are deemed not to have voted in the expected manner.
The story of the crisis is told differently in the government controlled media and the privately owned press. The public media prefers to be optimistic. It prefers to sideline the suffering of the majority and trivializes it where it cannot avoid the story. For example, the country's only broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), prefers to lead with a story about marketing of the Victoria Falls to the regional and international community as if the recently announced hike in long distance fares (and other basic commodities) is not newsworthy.
The private press would usually give prominence to stories of economic malaise. In the Daily News, Zanu PF propaganda would be given daily rebuttal. In addition, the continuing abuse of human rights in the political and other arena would find its full expression in the paper. That the daily private paper was a thorn in the flesh of politicians has always been evident. Prior to the bombing of the Daily News printing press in 2000, leading government spokesperson and Minister of State for Information and Publicity in the Office of the President and Cabinet Jonathan Moyo described the paper as “a threat to national security”. The newspaper has been the target of three bombings and has endured the frequent arrest of its editors, journalists and other staff.
AIPPA purports to promote access to information held by public bodies and regulates the media industry in Zimbabwe. Because of AIPPA, ANZ has lost its equipment including all computers and the printing press. Its owners risk being jailed for a period of two years and its closure may simply be a replica of what happened to Joy TV, which ceased operations in June 2002 on legal grounds.
The MIC has 60 days to consider the ANZ application - by which time it may not be commercially viable after losing advertising and sales revenue. The Government blames the Daily News for failing to register with the MIC instead of revisiting the policies it implemented. Such is the repression the Zanu PF Government has so craftily forced through the legislative assembly. In fact, the government's forced closure of the offices and printing press of the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) represents the climax of the Zanu-PF led Government campaign to muzzle alternative opinion using all legal instruments at its disposal. This is the first time that a newspaper has been legally banned in Zimbabwe since the mid-1960s, when the former white-minority Rhodesian government outlawed a pro-black nationalist newspaper called The African Daily News.
The Daily News is the latest casualty of AIPPA and government's undemocratic and unjust media policy. Several community newspapers have stopped publishing because of the punitive registration requirements in Statutory Instrument 169C/2002 (Chapter 10:27) of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy (Registration, Accreditation and Levy) Regulations of June 2002. In Midlands alone, five community newspapers, including the Gokwe Times - the only localized news source for the people of Gokwe, stopped publishing after Government announced its intentions to enforce the provisions of AIPPA. In addition, several foreign correspondents have been denied the right to practice in the country using the same regulations. The broadcasting sector is no different. Joy TV ceased operations on legal grounds. No alternative broadcasters have been licensed. Aspiring community broadcasters have been openly told they will not get broadcasting licenses.
The latest event involving the closure of the Daily News has robbed civic society of a platform to communicate their views. It serves as a clear indication to the people of Zimbabwe and the international community that the laws that were hastily crafted under the guise of promoting freedom of expression rights were actually meant to muzzle rather than promote these rights.
* Sizani Weza is Advocacy Officer with the Media Monitoring Project (MMPZ), an independent organisation that monitors media output and information rights developments in Zimbabwe. ([email protected])
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