IX. Violations of Media Freedom

As a daily source of information in Zimbabwe, there is still no alternative to the state-run broadcaster the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and the state-run Herald newspaper.  On January 11, 2008, amendments to AIPPA came into force. AIPPA is a law that Human Rights Watch and other local and international organizations have argued limits Zimbabweans rights to freedom of expression and information.78 The government has claimed that in the run up to the 2008 elections the amendments to AIPPA significantly open up the space for free media and information throughout the country.  Human Rights Watch has analyzed the amendments and has also spoken to several media experts and lawyers, and argues that the amendments do little to improve the state of media freedom in Zimbabwe.

Among other things, the amendments reconstitute the Media and Information Commission (MIC), the body in charge of media regulations, into the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC). But although the amendments to AIPPA should have effectively dissolved the MIC—which was widely perceived to be partisan and not independent—in practice the ZMC has not yet been put into place and the MIC continues to regulate the media.79 In any case, members of the renamed commission would still be appointed by the president from a list of persons provided by the Parliamentary Committee on Standing Rules and Orders,80 and MIC chair Tafataona Mahoso—who is widely perceived as partisan by independent journalists and media organizations—remains in charge. 

The amendments to the act abolish the offense of “journalism without accreditation,”81 but it remains a criminal offense for a journalist without accreditation to cover official events such as the elections or to talk to election officials. Under the amendments unaccredited journalists will be barred from full-time employment by mass media services and news agencies operating in Zimbabwe.82 In addition, sections 15 and 16 of POSA, which criminalize certain media offenses, have not been dealt with by the amendments.83

In a clear example of how little has changed on the ground for journalists, Human Rights Watch documented the case of Brian Hungwe, a well-respected Zimbabwean journalist of 10 years’ professional experience. Hungwe applied for accreditation to work as a freelance journalist in March 2007, but in September 2007 the MIC banned him from practicing journalism for a year. On February 26, 2008, the MIC upheld that decision following Hungwe’s appeal. The MIC accused him of contravening sections of the AIPPA, relating to conditions under which journalists are accredited.84  Hungwe told Human Rights Watch,

I got the determination in September 2007. I was told that I would be banned from any events to do with journalism until August 2008. If I breached these conditions I was told I would be banned for life. I appealed to the minister of information in late September who handed me over to Bright Matongo, his deputy, who also assured me that I would get accreditation. In November 2007 I asked about the status of my accreditation and once again I was assured that I would get accreditation.  In January 2008 I went to the MIC and was told that by approaching the minister of information I showed a lack of confidence in their ability to deal with my case. Soon afterwards amendments to AIPPA came into place and I thought things would be sorted out and I would get my accreditation. Today I got a letter rejecting my appeal for the ban to be reconsidered and that despite amendments to AIPPA I was still banned from reporting.  If I breach that I will be deleted from the roll of journalists for life. This means I will be unable to report on the elections. I have been deprived of my livelihood for over a year, and now I will be deprived for another year and yet I have done nothing wrong. I am a Zimbabwean who just wants to practice journalism for my livelihood.85

On February 26, Reporters without Borders issued a press release highlighting its concerns over a growing government crackdown on the independent media.86  The organization stated that “journalists have been arrested, summoned and ordered to reveal sources, charged with ‘publication of false news’ and newspapers threatened with closure if they fail to comply.”87 The organization went on to cite a number of cases that highlighted the upsurge in government abuses against journalists. The cases included a raid on the offices of the privately-owned weekly Masvingo Mirror on February 9 by state security agents after the paper published articles referring to presidential candidate Simba Makoni.

In a statement issued by the Herald on February 22, Minister of Information and Publicity Sikhanyiso Ndlovu threatened to sue the Financial Gazette newspaper for publishing a story about the refusal of key ZANU-PF members to sign the nomination papers of Robert Mugabe. The minister was quoted as saying, “As Minister responsible for Information and Publicity, I will not hesitate to institute the necessary corrective measures upon the paper in accordance to (sic) our laws and regulations as stipulated by the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).”88

The government has also prevented journalists from working by deliberately creating delays in court cases in which they face charges. For example, a journalist from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union weekly publication who was arrested on March 3, 2007, still had his case pending in the court almost a year later.89 In another example highlighted by Reporters without Borders, three journalists working for the weekly Network Guardian, Blessed Mhlanga, James Muonwa, and Wycliff Nyarota, appeared in court in Kwekwe, Midlands province on February 18 charged with “publishing false news” in an article that appeared on March 26, 2006, immediately where after charges against the journalists were first brought by the government. The judge set the date for their trial as April 15, 2008.90

The government’s determination to ensure that there is no independent daily press is exemplified by the case of the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only independent newspaper, which was shut down by the government in 2003.  Despite claims by the government that it would consider the paper’s reapplication for accreditation under the new laws, the government has stalled, and at this writing the paper’s application has yet to be heard by the courts even though the paper had submitted a fresh application to the MIC.91

The importance of an independent print media can not be underestimated given the partisan and negative nature of political reporting in the state-run Herald newspaper, and the reluctance of the paper to objectively present the views of the opposition.  MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa informed Human Rights Watch, “We took our adverts to the Herald a week ago, and they are dillydallying saying that they have to speak to their bosses. They still haven’t come back to us.” 92

Unequal Access of the Opposition to the Media

The lack of diverse media information in Zimbabwe underlines the need for more equal and fair coverage of the elections on the part of public broadcasters. But, as in past elections this has not been the case for the 2008 contest.  The opposition continues to have little or no access to the state broadcast media.  Section 16 C (d) on access to public broadcasting media of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act as amended (by the Electoral Laws Amendment Act, 2007) calls for “a fair and balanced allocation of time between each political party and independent candidate” and requires that “each political party and independent candidate is allowed a reasonable opportunity to present a case through the broadcasting service concerned.”93 Additionally, all broadcasters or print publishers “shall offer the same terms and conditions of publication, without discrimination, to all the political parties and candidates contesting the election.”

Despite these comprehensive provisions, political coverage on the state-funded Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) radio and ZBC television (ZTV) is imbalanced both quantitatively and qualitatively. It is dominated by coverage of ZANU-PF rallies and election campaigns. For example, the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ), an independent nongovernmental body that monitors the state of the media in Zimbabwe, found that in the week between February 14 and 21, 2008, of the 93 news reports ZTV carried on political campaigns and rallies, 72 were on the ruling party, seven on the MDC, 11 on presidential candidate Simba Makoni, and three on other parties.94 Between February 5 and 29 ZTV accorded a total of three hours and 36 minutes to ZANU-PF’s electoral activities in its main news bulletins; in contrast, just nine minutes were allocated to the two MDC factions, 26 minutes to Simba Makoni, and other political parties got four minutes.95  According to MMPZ, ZBC radio stations followed a similar pattern: SPOT FM devoted 50 stories to ZANU PF and only two reports on the MDC’s activities, while Radio Zimbabwe carried 68 stories on ZANU PF while only three reports were on the MDC.96 ZANU-PF’s monopoly of the state media is not only incompatible with Zimbabwe’s laws, but also the SADC Principles and Guidelines, which call for “equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media,”  during the campaigning period.97 

On March 7, 2008, the government gazetted the ZEC (Media Coverage of Elections) Regulations which address the content of election broadcasts by the ZBC and the duration of broadcasting election events, and ensure that there is equitable allocation of airtime to all political parties.98 However, organizations such as the MMPZ argue that these regulations come too late in the day to address the imbalance.99

What little coverage is given to the opposition is often used to present them in a negative way.  MDC spokesperson Nelson Chamisa told Human Rights Watch, “ZBC interview us and they distort what we say and give us as little airtime as possible. It has reached the stage where we’ve said if you distort what we say we will refuse to be interviewed by you.”100 The MMPZ reflects this point and has criticized ZBC for constantly presenting skewed coverage of the elections in favor of ZANU-PF.  Abel Chikomo, MMPZ advocacy coordinator, told Human Rights Watch, “The public media has ceased being a media of any kind and has become a propaganda organ for the ruling party.”101 

The Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) of Zimbabwe has always allowed for private broadcasting. However, the January 2008 amendments to the BSA do not address the ban on foreign funding for private broadcasters, or the issue of regulations that would allow private or community radio stations to become operational, the cost of applications, or the duration of licenses for broadcasting.102  Due to the lack of clarity on these issues, media experts have argued that there is not enough time for any private broadcaster to be operational before the elections.103

78 Human Rights Watch interviews with Abel Chikomo, advocacy coordinator, MMPZ, Harare, February 4, 2008, and Wilbert Mandinde, legal officer, MISA Zimbabwe, Harare, February 5, 2008.

79 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Amendment Act, 2007 (distributed by Veritus Trust), clause 3.

80 Ibid.

81 Ibid., clause 18.

82 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 2002.

83 Section 15 of POSA makes it an offense to publish or communicate false statements that may be prejudicial to the state. Section 16 of POSA makes it a crime punishable by imprisonment of up to one year to make statements construed as engendering feelings of hostility towards the president.

84 Specifically he was charged with violations of sections 90 and 79 (5) of AIPPA as read with section 6 of Statutory Instrument 169 C of 2002. The sections relate to conditions under which the MIC can accredit journalists and to the representation of offices of foreign mass media services. “MIC imposes illegal ban against journalist in violation of AIPPA Amendment Act,” MISA media alert, February 27, 2008.

85 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Brian Hungwe, Johannesburg, February 27, 2008. See also “MIC imposes illegal ban against journalist in violation of AIPPA Amendment Act,” MISA media alert.

86 Reporters sans Frontieres, “Zimbabwe: Government Steps up Hounding of Independent Press Ahead of Presidential Elections,” February 26, 2008.

87 Ibid.

88 “UK, US regime change agenda doomed: Ndlovu,” The Herald .

89 Human Rights Watch interview with Wilbert Mandide, February 5, 2008.

90 Reporters sans Frontieres, “Zimbabwe: Government Steps up Hounding of Independent Press Ahead of Presidential Elections.”

91 “Daily News Set to Bounce Back,” Zimbabwe Standard, February 17, 2008.

92 Human Rights Watch interview with Nelson Chamisa, February 21, 2008.

93 Electoral Laws Amendment Act, 2007, clause 12.

94 Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ), “Weekly Media Update,” February 21, 2008.

95 MMPZ presentation to the Diplomatic Community attended by Human Rights Watch, Harare, March 12, 2008.

96 Ibid.

97 SADC Principles and Guidelines, section 2.1.5.

98 Zimbabwe Election Support Network briefing, March 12, 2008.

99 MMPZ presentation to the Diplomatic Community attended by Human Rights Watch, Harare, March 12, 2008.

100 Human Rights Watch interview with Nelson Chamisa, February 21, 2008.

101 Human Rights Watch interview with Abel Chikomo, advocacy coordinator, MMPZ, Harare, February 5, 2008.

102 Ibid.

103 Human Rights Watch interviews with Abel Chikomo, Harare, February 4, 2008, and Wilbert Mandide, Harare, February 5, 2008.