Zimbabwe | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

89

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

33

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

27

Press freedom in Zimbabwe remained extremely restricted in 2007, as President Robert Mugabe’s government continued to exert tight control over domestic media and attempted to block the efforts of foreign outlets to circulate unfiltered news within the country. Despite constitutional provisions for freedom of expression, officials display an openly hostile attitude toward media freedom, and a draconian legal framework continues to effectively inhibit the activities of journalists and media outlets. The 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) requires all journalists and media companies to register with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC) and gives the information minister sweeping powers to decide who is able to work as a journalist. A number of private newspapers have been denied licenses since the AIPPA came into force, most notoriously the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only independent daily, which was shuttered in 2003. Repeated constitutional challenges to the AIPPA by the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), publisher of the Daily News, have proven unsuccessful. Although the MIC was restructured in October, its chairperson, Tafataona Mahoso, who had been found in previous court rulings to be biased against the ANZ, was retained, casting doubts on the commission’s ability to adjudicate fairly on the case.

Authorities continue to employ a range of restrictive legislation—including the Official Secrets Act, the AIPPA, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and criminal defamation laws—to harass and charge journalists. Section 15 of the POSA and Section 80 of the AIPPA criminalize the publication of “inaccurate” information, and both laws have been used to intimidate, arrest, and prosecute reporters. The 2005 Criminal Law (Codification and Reform Bill) increased prison sentences for similar violations to a maximum of 20 years, and a February 2006 amendment tightened the “presidential insult” and “communication of falsehoods” provisions of the POSA. Both local and foreign journalists are regularly arrested on charges of practicing journalism without a license. Cases in 2007 include those of Bright Chivburi, editor of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions magazine, the Worker, who was charged in Plumtree in March; Peter Moyo of South Africa’s private E.TV station and several other local journalists, who were arrested in Mutare in February while covering a story on illegal mining activities; and Time correspondent Alex Perry, arrested in March for covering a similar story. However, in most cases, such charges are dismissed by the courts.

Professional and media monitoring organizations—such as the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, and the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)—are subjected to official harassment. These three groups were jointly involved in advocating for the introduction of an independent media council, intended to replace the MIC as part of a self-regulatory system. In December, the government proposed amendments to the AIPPA and POSA, but these were dismissed by MISA as cosmetic changes that would not radically improve the legal environment for media freedom.

Journalists are routinely subjected to verbal intimidation, physical attacks, arrest and detention, and financial pressure at the hands of the police, government officials, and supporters of the ruling party. Instances of arbitrary arrest and detention occur primarily when reporters are trying to cover politically charged stories, and perpetrators are rarely (if ever) punished, leading to a culture of impunity throughout the country. In early 2007, a particularly harsh wave of repression occurred in the context of the government’s crackdown on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party. Several journalists were arrested and mistreated in detention, including Gift Phiri, a reporter for the Zimbabwean. In April, a former cameraman for state television, Edward Chikomba, was abducted, beaten, and murdered, allegedly for leaking footage to foreign news outlets of the beating of MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Watchdog groups raised concerns following the leaking in September of a purported government “blacklist” of 27 journalists who had been targeted for surveillance and possible arrest. Those named included Phiri and others who had already been subjected to threats, such as Abel Mutsakani, a former Daily News editor and founder of ZimOnline, who survived an assassination attempt in South Africa in July, and Bill Saidi, acting editor of the Standard, who received an envelope in January containing a bullet and a threatening message following the publication of several articles on desertions and lack of funding within the army.

Foreign journalists are not allowed to reside full-time in the country and are regularly denied visas to file stories from Zimbabwe. Locally based correspondents for foreign publications, particularly those whose reporting has portrayed the regime in an unfavorable light, have been refused accreditation or threatened with lawsuits and deportation. In March, Jan Raath and Peta Thornycroft, prominent correspondents for Britain’s Times and Daily Telegraph, were accused of reporting “fabricated stories” and were threatened with unspecified reprisals in a government press release, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Publisher Trevor Ncube, who owns several newspapers in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, has faced harassment as authorities have repeatedly attempted to strip him of his citizenship and confiscate his passport; the Central Intelligence Office (CIO) had previously confiscated his passport in 2005, allegedly because his father was Zambian and not Zimbabwean. During the past several years, dozens of Zimbabwean journalists have fled the country, and according to a report by CPJ, Zimbabwe has the highest number of exiled journalists in the world, with more than 90 currently living outside the country, predominantly in South Africa and the United Kingdom.

The government, through the Mass Media Trust holding company, controls several major daily newspapers, including the Chronicle and the Herald; coverage in these news outlets consists of favorable portrayals of Mugabe and the ruling party and attacks on perceived critics of the regime. Several independent weeklies such as the Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent continue to publish, although many journalists practice extensive self-censorship. Newspapers must register with the MIC, which regularly shutters outlets for critical reporting. In March, Sunsley Chamunorwa, editor of the Financial Gazette, was dismissed from his job after he reportedly refused to bow to pressure from the CIO regarding the paper’s editorial line and published a story concerning the business dealings of a powerful official. The privately owned Daily Mirror, which is controlled outright by the CIO, was forced to stop publishing during the year owing to lack of funds. Some foreign newspapers, mostly from South Africa, are available, although the authorities have threatened to restrict their importation. In October 2006, police raided the Harare distribution offices of the Zimbabwean, an independent weekly printed in South Africa, and confiscated documents. In general, newspapers have poor distribution networks outside the urban areas and have become relatively expensive, placing them beyond the reach of most Zimbabweans. Printing expenses have increased dramatically because of soaring prices for newsprint and paper, causing many outlets to restrict their print runs. According to MISA’s African Media Barometer, state-run companies do not advertise in private papers, and state-run media outlets do not accept advertising from companies known to be aligned with the opposition. Owing to poor economic conditions and salaries that do not keep pace with inflation, corruption and cash incentives for coverage have become rampant.

The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation runs all broadcast media, which are subject to overt political interference and censorship. The Broadcasting Services Act bans foreign funding and investment in this capital-intensive sector, making it very difficult for private players to enter the market. Additionally, it provides for a monopoly by the state-owned Transmedia Company regarding the ownership of frequency transmitters, even though Transmedia is currently not able to provide adequate service even to existing broadcast outlets. Broadcasting licenses have been consistently denied to independently owned radio stations, despite calls by a parliamentary committee for the broadcast sector to be opened up. Access to broadcast media in rural areas is hampered by deteriorating equipment and a lack of transmission sites; according to MISA, only 30 percent of the country receives radio and television coverage from the state-controlled broadcaster, although the government has reached an agreement with China to help upgrade this infrastructure. Meanwhile, also using Chinese technology, authorities began jamming the signals of the increasingly popular foreign-based radio stations that broadcast into Zimbabwe in 2005, including those of SW Radio Africa, a London-based station run by exiled Zimbabwean journalists; the Voice of America’s Studio 7 service; and the Voice of the People. In April 2007, the Iranian government agreed to help fund a new state radio station designed to counter Western broadcasts. Although satellite television services that provide international news programming remain largely uncensored, their prohibitive cost places them out of reach for most of the population.

Access to the internet is limited by the high costs at internet cafés and service disruptions caused by frequent power outages. Nonetheless, Zimbabwe has a relatively high rate of internet access for Africa, at more than 10 percent of the population. Online newspapers run by Zimbabweans living abroad are popular among those with internet access. The law allows the government to monitor e-mail content, and one individual was arrested and sentenced to a US$33 fine or seven days in prison for possessing an e-mail that contained critical comments about President Mugabe. In August, the government passed the controversial Interception of Communications Act, which would allow officials to intercept telephonic and electronic communications to prevent a “serious offense” or a “threat to national security”; the law would establish a monitoring center and would require internet service providers to pay the cost of surveillance.