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Country Reports

Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press 2017



Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Freedom of the Press Scores

(0=Most Free, 100=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Internet Penetration Rate: 

Key Developments in 2016:

  • In July, as an antigovernment protest movement was gaining momentum, the broadcasting authority issued a notice to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and a private radio outlet warning that they could be prosecuted for programming that could “incite, encourage, or glamorize violence or brutality.”
  • As word of planned protest actions spread via social media and mobile messaging services, WhatsApp, one such service, was temporarily suspended in July. Authorities rejected allegations of ordering telecommunications companies to block access to the service, but also blamed WhatsApp for helping to encourage protests and propagate lies.
  • Several journalists covering antigovernment protests were arrested, assaulted, or saw their equipment confiscated.
  • The Constitutional Court struck down criminal defamation provisions in February, but the year saw a number of civil defamation claims by public officials against media houses and journalists that published stories implicating them in corruption.

Executive Summary

Press freedom is restricted in Zimbabwe. Journalists face harassment, threats, arbitrary arrests, and confiscation of equipment, and poor economic conditions continue to place financial strain on the media sector. Authorities frequently invoke civil and criminal provisions in an attempt to silence critical journalists. In a country where many people reply on the radio for information, media diversity is limited by authorities’ sustained refusal to grant licenses to community radio stations.

In 2016, journalists encountered difficulties while attempting to cover an antigovernment protest movement that was in large part mobilized through social media. Several reporters attempting to cover protest actions were attacked, including by police officers. In July, the messaging service WhatsApp was temporarily suspended. Officials blamed WhatsApp for helping to propagate lies and encourage demonstrations, but denied blocking it; the blockage likely also hampered journalists’ ability to locate and cover protest actions. Also in July, Zimbabwe’s broadcasting authority issued a statement addressed to the ZBC and the radio station Star FM warning that programs that “incite, encourage, or glamorize violence or brutality” were illegal under a 2004 broadcasting law, and added that the stations should avoid “broadcasting obscene and undesirable comments.” That statement followed an April address by President Robert Mugabe at which he suggested that a Chinese-style filtering regime could be established to restrict internet access, purportedly to prevent “abuses.”

Meanwhile, journalists and media outlets behind stories unflattering to senior officials faced criminal charges and civil defamation cases.

Legal Environment: 24 / 30

The 2013 constitution provides for freedom of expression and access to information, with some limitations. However, an otherwise draconian legal framework continues to inhibit the activities of journalists and media outlets. The Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (CLCRA) severely limit what journalists may publish and mandate harsh penalties—including long prison sentences—for violators. The 2007 Interception of Communications Act allows officials to intercept telephonic and electronic communications and to monitor their content to prevent a “serious offense” or a “threat to national security.”

Several journalists were arrested and charged under restrictive laws in 2016. In January, NewsDay editor Nqaba Matshazi and reporter Xolisani Ncube were charged with publishing false information in connection with an article on preferential bonuses for Central Intelligence Office (CIO) members. In August, James Jemwa, a freelance journalist, was arrested and charged with incitement; he had been reporting on an antigovernment demonstration in the capital. Additionally, in response to a growing wave of criticism and the mobilization of citizens through social media, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) in July warned that citizens could be arrested for “the gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunications services,” adding, “all SIM cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user. Perpetrators can easily be identified.”

The Constitutional Court in February 2016 struck down criminal defamation provisions. However, 2016 saw a number of civil defamation claims by public officials against media houses and journalists that published stories implicating them in corruption. Among them was a November 2016 case filed by Minister of Local Government, Public Works, and National Housing Saviour Kasukuwere, who sued the Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Zimpapers) and five journalists for defamation over articles implicating him in a scandal involving the improper allocation of public land. Also in November, Higher and Tertiary Education Minister Jonathan Moyo sued Zimpapers over articles implicating him in the abuse of funds, theft, and corruption. The previous month, Moyo had filed a separate defamation case against Zimpapers over a story he claimed wrongly implicated him in the theft of motor vehicles.

The right to information is theoretically provided by the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), though with a number of exemptions. In practice, the relevant provisions of the law are not operational, and accessing official information remains extremely difficult. The colonial-era Official Secrets Act is also used to maintain tight control over information.

The Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) regulates the licensing of publications and journalists. In 2012, the ZMC announced the creation of the 13-member Zimbabwe Media Council, as provided for under the AIPPA. The council is charged with developing codes of conduct for print media, and has the power to impose punishments on media houses that transgress the codes. However, chronic underfunding has greatly constrained its capacity to fulfill this mandate. The independent Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), a self-regulatory body for all types of media that is supported by a majority of print outlets, has continued to develop its scope of activities, and has heard numerous formal complaints and adjudicated disputes over media content.

Broadcasting licenses have been consistently denied to independent and community radio stations, but granted to government-affiliated organizations. No community radio stations have been licensed since 2001, and independent outlets that campaign for licenses face harassment by authorities. Commercial radio licenses issued have generally gone to companies that are either state-controlled, or owned or operated by individuals with close links to the ruling party. Critics allege that the board of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ), which is responsible for granting radio and television licenses, was illegally appointed in 2009 by the information minister and stacked with loyalists of President Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Media advocacy groups have criticized the licensing process for its complexity, political nature, and prohibitively high fees.

 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 occasionally subject to official pressure.

The AIPPA requires all journalists and media companies to register, and gives the information minister sweeping powers to decide which publications can operate legally and who is able to work as a journalist. Unlicensed journalists can face criminal charges and a sentence of up to two years in prison.

Political Environment: 25 / 40

The state-controlled ZBC runs the vast majority of broadcast media outlets, which are subject to overt political interference and censorship. ZBC coverage favors the ZANU-PF.

The Zimbabwe Censorship Board is empowered by law to declare materials indecent and block their distribution. The board in March 2016 upheld a 2015 decision banning a documentary about the 2013 constitution. Separately, the messaging service WhatsApp was temporarily blocked in July 2016, prompting suspicion that the government had requested that telecommunications companies ban access to it in order to discourage protest actions. Officials blamed WhatsApp for helping to propagate lies and encourage protests, but denied blocking it; the blockage also potentially affected journalists’ ability to cover protest actions. Also in July, Zimbabwe’s broadcasting authority issued a statement addressed to the ZBC and the radio station Star FM, warning that programs that “incite, encourage, or glamorize violence or brutality” were illegal under a 2004 broadcasting law, and added that the stations should avoid “broadcasting obscene and undesirable comments.” In April, President Mugabe spoke approvingly of China’s system for restricting access to certain websites, saying such a system could be implemented in Zimbabwe in order to halt “abuses” online.

Faced with legal restrictions and the threat of extralegal intimidation, some journalists practice self-censorship, particularly regarding sensitive issues such as corruption or factional fighting within ZANU-PF.

Radio remains the primary source of information for many people in Zimbabwe, particularly in rural areas. While there are numerous radio stations, diversity is limited due to the ZANU-PF’s control over broadcasting licenses. However, two private radio stations that opened in 2012, Star FM and ZiFM, provide a range of views. Radio listeners in Zimbabwe are required to obtain a license for each radio in their possession, which must be renewed annually, with profits going to the ZBC. The government has also made car radio license renewal a required element of updating vehicle registration. In July 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that all Zimbabweans with a device capable of receiving a radio or television signal must pay license fees to the ZBC; the requirement had been challenged on grounds that it forced citizens to pay for services they did not necessarily use. Satellite television services that carry international and regional news programming remain largely uncensored, and are accessed by a growing share of the population. It is estimated that just over half of the population has a working television at home, and of these, about two-thirds access content via satellite dishes.

 Online newspapers, news portals, and blogs run by Zimbabweans living abroad are increasingly popular among those with internet access. Diaspora media also distribute news and information via text-messaging and social-media platforms.

Steep accreditation fees introduced in 2011 for foreign media bureaus and their local correspondents remain in place. Foreign journalists can encounter restrictions on residing full-time in the country, and are sometimes denied visas. Local correspondents for foreign publications have also been refused accreditation or threatened with lawsuits and deportation in the past. In July 2016, two foreign journalists from Sky News were detained and then deported for failing to obtain accreditation.

Journalists risk 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 main political parties. In the summer of 2016, several journalists were physically assaulted or had their equipment seized while covering antigovernment protests and other activities. Riot police attacked Lucy Yasini, a freelance journalist, as she was reporting on an opposition march. Jemwa, another freelancer, was assaulted, possibly by ZANU-PF supporters, who also seized his phone, press card, and camera. He was later arrested for incitement. Journalists working for foreign media outlets—including Al-Jazeera English, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and the African News Agency—were subject to physical harassment by police while reporting on an antigovernment protest. Freelance photographer Mlondolozi Ndlovu was harassed by protesters while covering a demonstration. A ZBC vehicle was set on fire at one demonstration, also reportedly by protesters.

Economic Environment: 25 / 30

The government controls the two main daily newspapers, the Chronicle and the Herald, whose propagandistic coverage generally favors Mugabe and the ZANU-PF. The private Alpha Media Holdings group publishes a number of papers, including NewsDay, the Standard, and the Zimbabwe Independent. The Daily News, published by the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, resumed operations in 2011 after being shuttered in 2003, and is generally aligned with the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T). Some foreign newspapers, mainly from South Africa, are available.

Newspapers are relatively expensive and have poor distribution networks outside urban areas. Vendors and distributors of independent newspapers are occasionally harassed by soldiers or ruling party supporters. State-run companies do not often advertise in private papers, and state-run media outlets do not generally accept advertising from companies thought to be aligned with the opposition.

The Broadcasting Services Act bans foreign funding and investment in that sector, making it difficult for private players to enter the market. Access to broadcast media in some districts is hampered by deteriorating equipment and a lack of transmission sites. However, Zimbabwe’s transition from analog to digital broadcasting has provided an opportunity to upgrade the country’s broadcast infrastructure, and in 2015, authorities reached agreements with European and Chinese companies to facilitate improvements. The transition to digital broadcasting was ongoing in 2016.

Local authorities occasionally raid homes in rural areas and confiscate the shortwave radios used to access foreign broadcasts.

The country’s continued economic crisis has adversely affected the media industry. Media houses have been forced to downsize, cut salaries, and defer payments. Low salaries may encourage some reporters to accept bribes.

Internet access and usage have expanded in recent years, despite frequent power outages. Zimbabwe had an internet penetration rate of more than 23 percent of the population in 2016, with most accessing the internet via their mobile phones.