Full-Court Press

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Eleven days ago, President Robert Mugabe’s regime shut down the last remaining independent daily newspaper in Zimbabwe (which, not coincidentally, had been critical of his increasingly repressive rule). International outrage followed, along with renewed calls for press freedom in Zimbabwe — to no discernible effect.

On Tuesday, the police charged leading editors at the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), the parent company of the paper, the Daily News with operating without a license. Under harsh media laws passed last year, all publications and reporters are required to get state accreditation in order to operate, as noted at the time by Mother Jones in a “Hellraiser” profile of the Daily News‘s editor, Geoff Nyarota, in the magazine’s March/April 2002 issue. William Orme wrote this about the paper: “Three years after its founding, it is now widely considered the one indispensable paper in a country where most news media operate under strict official control. And, by all accounts, it drives Mugabe crazy.”

Clearly it still does — more than ever. South Africa’s Business Day reported that armed police began the media clampdown on September 12 by raiding the ANZ’s eight-story building, confiscating computers and other equipment for use as “exhibits” in an upcoming trial.

A letter to President Mugabe from the World Association of Newspapers and its affiliate, the World Editor’s Forum, formally demanded that Mugabe allow the News, which in four years has become the largest circulation daily in the country, to publish. A WAN press release referred to Zimbabwe’s media laws as “ draconian,” and the association’s letter warned that Mugabe’s policies were in violation of international agreements:

“We respectfully remind you that the closure of the Daily News is a clear breach of the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by numerous international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 of the Declaration states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.'”

Mugabe is none too popular with the international community these days, and his autocratic rule has come under increasing heat. Foreign journalists have been kicked out. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth last year (Mugabe was warned specifically to improve freedom of the press before as a condition for readmission). The assault on the News is just the latest chapter in a long-running clampdown on the free expression and dissent in the country.

Under the the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), pushed through by Mugabe soon after his controversial re-election last year, all journalists and publications are required to register with the country’s newly-created Media and Information Commission (MIC). After the MIC ruled that news sources must register with the government, the comission set a deadline for registration. The ANZ applied for registration for the Daily News eight months after that deadline, largely because the company had sued the government, unsuccessfully as it turned out, on the grounds that the MIC’s policies were unconstitutional.

Last Friday MIC ruled to withhold the license, effectively banning the paper. The ANZ’s CEO and four directors face fines of 300,000 Zimbabwean dollars (U.S. $375, or about two years’ salary) and up to two years in jail for publishing without registration. Saying the ANZ had initially failed follow the law, the Supreme Court refused to hear the company’s constitutional arguments regarding, claiming that the ANZ approached the court with “dirty hands.” ANZ lawyer Gugulethu Moyo scoffed at the court’s faulty logic, the Zimbabwe Independent reports:

“‘The practical effect of this judgement is that had we been challenging the death penalty and not media laws, we would have had to hang first and challenge the penalty from hell.'”

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling, a High Court found that police forces could not legally bar the ANZ from operating. According to Judge Younis Omerjee, the paper is not currently operating outside the law, as registration has been filed, and it can only be shut down by authorities if convicted in a court of law.

But the Media Institute of South Africa reports that armed police still remain inside the ANZ building,and the government has vowed to fine and jail the paper’s 45 independent journalists in addition to the editors. Meanwhile, the Daily News website promises it will be back online “as soon as possible” and encourages readers to visit its online discussion board, Shumba:

“Please feel free to visit the Shumba Discussion Forum and air your views on our new topic – Media Freedom.”

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