Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Despite an environment of greater openness following the formation of a national unity government in February, press freedom in Zimbabwe remained tightly restricted in 2009. Proposed reforms to liberalize the media sector after years of authoritarian abuse were stalled by President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party, which was still entrenched in the executive branch.
Even with constitutional provisions for freedom of expression, 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 which publications can operate legally and who is able to work as a journalist. In addition, the Official Secrets Act, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act severely limit what journalists may publish and mandate harsh penalties—including long prison sentences—for violators.
The power-sharing agreement between ZANU-PF and two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the longtime opposition party, mandated the creation of a new, independent Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) to replace the state-controlled MIC. In August, Parliament submitted a list of 12 potential ZMC commissioners to the president, but the new panel had not been formed by year’s end, and a case brought by four journalists who had been barred from covering a regional summit in Harare forced government lawyers to concede that the MIC no longer had accreditation powers. The delayed overhaul prevented a number of publications—including the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only independent daily until it was shuttered in 2003, and a new private daily, NewsDay—from receiving the requisite licenses to operate legally. In July, a special government committee approved granting licenses to the Daily News and its sister paper, the Daily News on Sunday, but the licenses were still pending at the end of the year. In September, a new state-run daily, H-Metro, was launched in Harare.
To a lesser extent than in previous years, authorities continued to exploit Zimbabwe’s repressive laws to harass and punish journalists, relying less on AIPPA and POSA and more on the Criminal Law Act. In March 2009, three journalists from the Bulawayo Chronicle were charged with criminal defamation and breaching the Criminal Law Act in an article that exposed corruption at the state-run Grain Marketing Board. In June, similar charges were filed against two journalists from the Zimbabwe Independent for a report criticizing law enforcement agencies that arrested and abused a group of opposition and civic activists in 2008, including human rights advocate Jestina Mukuko and photojournalist Shadreck Manyere. Journalists also faced verbal intimidation, physical attacks, arbitrary arrest and detention, interception of communications, and financial pressure at the hands of the police, government officials, and supporters of the ruling party. In May, Manyere was rearrested and denied bail after being released from the high-security Chikarubi Prison in April. He told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that he had been beaten, repeatedly blindfolded, and kept in iron shackles in prison. Faced with legal restrictions as well as the threat of extralegal intimidation, many journalists practice self-censorship.
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 also subject to official harassment.
In general, 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. During the past several years, dozens of Zimbabwean journalists have fled the country, mostly to South Africa and Britain; according to CPJ, Zimbabwe has one of the largest numbers of exiled journalists in the world. In January, the MIC, citing AIPPA, significantly raised the accreditation fees for foreign journalists, foreign outlets, and local journalists working for foreign outlets. However, in July the government lifted its outright ban on two major international news organizations, the British Broadcasting Corporation and the U.S.-based Cable News Network.
The government, through the Mass Media Trust holding company, controls the two main daily newspapers, the Chronicle and the Herald. Coverage in these papers generally 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, particularly regarding stories on corruption or factional fighting within ZANU-PF. The Zimbabwean is produced in South Africa for the Zimbabwean market, and some foreign newspapers, most of them also from South Africa, are available. Newspapers typically have poor distribution networks outside urban areas, and they have been buffeted by soaring prices for newsprint. In a positive development, the government eliminated its 40 percent “luxury” import tax on foreign newspapers in July. 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 thought to be aligned with the opposition. Owing to poor economic conditions and salaries that do not keep pace with inflation, journalistic corruption and cash incentives for coverage have become rampant.
The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) runs all broadcast media, which are subject to overt political interference and censorship. ZBC coverage, particularly before and during elections, overwhelmingly favors ZANU-PF. In 2009, retired military and intelligence officers loyal to Mugabe were appointed to sit on the boards of state-owned newspapers, the ZBC, and the NewZiana news agency. 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 independent radio stations, despite calls by a parliamentary committee for liberalization; in 2009, former MIC head and Mugabe ally Tafataona Mahoso was appointed chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), which is responsible for granting radio and television licenses.
Radio broadcasts are currently the predominant source of information in rural areas. However, access to broadcast media in such 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 have used Chinese technology to jam the signals of increasingly popular foreign-based radio stations that broadcast into Zimbabwe, including SW Radio Africa, a station run by exiled Zimbabwean journalists in London; the Voice of America’s Studio 7 service; and the Voice of the People. Such signal jamming was reduced somewhat in 2009. 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 penetration for Africa, at 11.3 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.” According to CPJ, journalists and opposition activists are regularly subject to such surveillance.