Zimbabwe | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe

Freedom of the Press 2009

2009 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

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

88

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

32

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

27

Press freedom in Zimbabwe remained tightly restricted in 2008, as President Robert Mugabe’s government, faced with elections in March, attempted to retain near-total control over domestic media and prevent foreign news outlets from covering political developments 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 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 law by the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), publisher of the Daily News, have proven unsuccessful; a fresh request for a license submitted in February 2008 remained pending at year’s end.

Authorities continue to employ a range of restrictive laws—including the Official Secrets Act, the AIPPA, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and criminal defamation laws—to harass and punish journalists. The AIPPA was amended in January 2008, but many restrictive aspects of the law remained in force, and authorities continued to apply outdated sections of the law to harass journalists. Local media groups were preparing legal challenges to the authority of the MIC, which under the January legislation was to have been disbanded and replaced by a new Zimbabwe Media Council (ZMC). By year’s end the ZMC had yet to be appointed. Both local and foreign journalists are regularly arrested on charges of practicing journalism without a license, or for “insult” or “communication of falsehoods,” but in most cases such charges are eventually 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.

Journalists routinely face 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. Reporting became considerably more difficult during and after the two rounds of elections in March and June 2008, with at least 16 journalists and other media workers jailed and several dozen others harassed or obstructed from doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). While foreign correspondents and those affiliated with private outlets were targeted, employees of state-run outlets such as the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) also faced repercussions if they failed to toe the official line. On May 24, a truck carrying approximately 60,000 copies of the Zimbabwean was bombed by unknown attackers.

In general, foreign journalists are not allowed to reside full-time in the country and are regularly denied visas to file stories from Zimbabwe, though a very small number were accredited to cover the 2008 elections. 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 a high-profile case in April, Barry Bearak, the South Africa–based correspondent for the New York Times, was arrested in Harare along with two other foreign reporters for violating AIPPA and held in prison before a judge ruled that his detention was illegal. During the past several years, dozens of Zimbabwean journalists have fled the country, mostly to South Africa and the United Kingdom; according to a report by CPJ, Zimbabwe has one of the highest number of exiled journalists in the world.

The government, through the Mass Media Trust holding company, controls the two main daily newspapers, the Chronicle and the Herald. Coverage in these papers 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 of their journalists practice extensive self-censorship. The Zimbabwean is produced in South Africa for the Zimbabwean market, and some foreign newspapers, most of them also from South Africa, are available. In general, newspapers have poor distribution networks outside urban areas, and they have been buffeted by soaring prices for newsprint and paper. In June, the government reclassified imported newspapers as luxury goods and slapped them with an import tax of 40 percent, leading many imported newspapers to dramatically reduce 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 ZBC runs all broadcast media, which are subject to overt political interference and censorship. Coverage during the election period overwhelmingly favored the ruling party, and in June the ZBC refused to broadcast campaign advertisements from the opposition. 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. 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 enjoys radio and television reception, although the government has reached an agreement with China to help upgrade this infrastructure. Meanwhile, officials are also using Chinese technology in attempts to jam the signals of the increasingly popular foreign-based radio stations that broadcast into Zimbabwe, including 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. Although satellite television services that provide international news programming remain largely uncensored, their cost places them out of reach for most of the population.

Access to the internet is limited by the high costs at internet cafes and service disruptions caused by frequent power outages. Nonetheless, Zimbabwe has a relatively high rate of internet access for Africa, at almost 12 percent of the population. Online newspapers, news portals, and blogs run by Zimbabweans living abroad are popular among those with internet access. The 2007 Interception of Communications Act allows officials to intercept telephonic and electronic communications and to monitor content to prevent a “serious offense” or a “threat to national security.” In a case that emerged in 2008, a media owner reportedly monitored the e-mail accounts of editors at various newspapers controlled by the Zimpapers group and terminated one editor who had written critical comments of Mugabe in private e-mails.