The Zimbabwean government has launched a new assault on the country’s remaining independent press through a wave of criminal prosecutions and arrests, Human Rights Watch said today.
Tomorrow in Harare, six trustees of Voice of the People (VOP), a privately-owned radio station, are due to appear in court on criminal charges. 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.
In addition, police in Mutare on January 18 arrested Sydney Saize, an independent journalist who had allegedly filed a story for Voice of America claiming that militants of the ruling ZANU-PF party had beaten teachers in the city. Saize faces possible criminal charges for practicing journalism without accreditation and publishing falsehoods punishable under the Public Order and Security Act of 2002.
“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.”
Earlier in January, Zimbabwe’s government-appointed Media and Information Commission (MIC) threatened to cancel the license of the Financial Gazette, a privately-owned newspaper, if it did not retract a story that had questioned the commission’s independence from government. On January 29, the commission refused to renew the accreditation of fifteen journalists working for the Zimbabwe Independent, another privately-owned newspaper, until the paper was forced to retract a similar story.
Even individuals somehow associated with those involved in independent media organizations have been harassed by the police. Zimbabwean police arrested and detained four employees of Arnold Tsunga, one of the VOP trustees facing trial, for failing to disclose Tsunga’s whereabouts to police. A lawyer representing two of the employees (who have since been released) told Human Rights Watch that a policeman repeatedly slapped one of the men around the head while in detention. A subsequent medical examination by a private doctor showed that the victim sustained a punctured ear drum during the assault.
In December, police arrested three female employees of VOP and refused to release them, demanding that VOP’s director, John Masuku, turn himself in to police. The women spent four days in custody and were only released when Masuku appeared at a police station in Harare where he was then arrested. The Office of the Attorney General refused to prosecute the employees due to a lack of evidence of any criminal offense.
“The Zimbabwean government has detained innocent people to coerce others to surrender,” said Simo. “This is a gross abuse of the criminal justice system,”
In the last five years, Zimbabwe’s government has enacted laws that give it discretionary control over who may operate a media outlet and practice journalism, as well as broad powers to prosecute persons critical of the government. In March, Human Rights Watch documented how the government has selectively used these laws to restrict independent media activity through intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and criminal prosecutions of journalists. These practices violate international guarantees to freedom of expression.
Under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act of 2002, owners of media houses who do not register with the Media and Information Commission face up to two years in prison if convicted. An amendment passed on January 7, 2005 provides for criminal penalties to journalists who operate without accreditation.
The Broadcasting Services Act of 2001 reinforced the state’s monopoly over all electronic broadcasting. The law gives the Minister of State for Information and Publicity the authority to determine who gets a broadcasting license and under what circumstances, to tighten restrictions on the nature, quality and quantity of information broadcast through radio and television, and to ban broadcasters who are deemed to be a threat to national security.
The Public Order and Security Act of 2002 introduced a range of overbroad and vague criminal offences that trammel the right to free expression. The law criminalizes criticism of the president, whether his person or his office. It also prohibits the publication of a false statement that prejudices or is intended to prejudice the country's defense or economic interests, or which undermines or is intended to undermine public confidence in a law enforcement agency, and the holding of a public gathering without giving the police four days' written notice.