As quoted in January, Zimbabwe's security minister Didymus Mutasa warned that "the net will soon close" on critical journalists who threatened nation’s security. The statement came together with a new offensive against the remaining independent journalists in the country and just after the arrest of employees and directors of Voice of the People (VOP), a radio station that transmitted into Zimbabwe via a shortwave transmitter in Madagascar. The significance of the crackdown lies in the fact that VOP is one of the few alternatives to the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
This Friday in Harare, six trustees of Voice of the People (VOP), a privately-owned radio station, are due to appear in court on criminal charges, according to a Human Rights Watch press release (http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2006/02/08/zimbab12632.htm). On January 24, the authorities brought charges of broadcasting without a license against six of the station’s trustees. VOP was one of the few alternatives to the state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, the only broadcaster with a license to operate legally in the country.
“The Zimbabwean government is using criminal charges to muzzle independent reporting and criticism,” said Paul Simo, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “This crackdown targets media that criticize government institutions, officials and the ruling party.”
The VOP trustees could face up to two years in jail. The charges came after police raided the Harare home of one of the board members, Arthur Tsunga, and kidnapped two of his household staff. The two were detained without charge for four days in an effort to coerce the executive director of VOP, John Masuku to turn himself into the police. Masuku was charged with broadcasting without a license on December 23.
The board members? David Masunda, Isabella Matambanadzo, Millicent Phiri, Lawrence Chibwe, Nhlahla Ngwenya and Tsunga?are will be represented by Beatrice Mtetwa, a renowned Zimbabwean human rights lawyer.
VOP was not the only target, however. Independent journalist Sydney Saize was arrested for filing a Voice of America report saying that the ruling ZANU-PF party had beaten teachers in the city. Meanwhile, the Media and Information Commission (MIC) threatened in early January to cancel the license of the Financial Gazette, a privately-owned newspaper, and refused to renew the accreditation of fifteen journalists working for the Zimbabwe Independent, another privately-owned newspaper.
Three laws have tightened the screws on Zimbabwe’s media over the last five years. The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act of 2002 forces media ventures to register with a Media and Information Commission or face prison. It also makes it an offence for journalists to work without accreditation.
The Broadcasting Services Act of 2001 ensures that the government has control of the airwaves by giving the Minister of State for Information and Publicity the power to decide who can broadcast. Lastly, the Public Order and Security Act of 2002 has a number of aspects which potentially limit the right to freedom of expression and covers the publishing of false statements against the state, the organizing of public gatherings and grants extensive powers to the police.