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Zimbabwean Journalists Continue to Hope for Change

As the world commemorates World Press Freedom Day, Zimbabwe once again finds itself on The Committee to Protect Journalists' list of the "World's Worst Places to Be a Journalist" in 2004. But there is cautious optimism among journalists that things might change for the better.

Last year saw no let up in the Zimbabwe government's assault on the private media. Using the inappropriately named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, journalists were harassed, intimidated and detained.

The country's leading daily newspaper, the Daily News and its sister paper, the Daily News on Sunday, banned in 2003, remained closed. Another independent weekly the Tribune had its license withdrawn in 2004.

Earlier this year, another independent newspaper, the Weekly Times was forced to close, after having its license withdrawn by the state appointed and controlled Media and Information Commission.

Attempts to have sections of the law declared unconstitutional failed, with the Supreme Court ruling in favor of the government.

But the March 31 elections saw the fall of former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, who got expelled from the ruling party for defying a party directive not to stand as an independent candidate. Mr. Moyo is widely seen as the architect of AIPPA.

In Mr. Moyo's place is Tichaona Jokonya, a former diplomat who called a meeting with state and independent editors, soon after his appointment. Mr. Jokonya told the editors he wants to engender an environment of co-operation, rather the confrontational stance adopted by his predecessor. He says AIPPA will stay.

But he queried the journalists about what they found offensive in the law, with a view to amend some sections. He warned that what he called "maligning the president" will not be tolerated.

Vincent Kahiya, the editor of the weekly Independent tells VOA the new minister sounded very enthusiastic. But Mr. Kahiya predicts what he calls "the system" may not allow Mr. Jokonya to carry out his agenda.

The secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of journalists, Foster Dongozi, is skeptical about the minister's intentions and says it could all be diplomatic speak. However, Mr. Dongozi says he and his union will take up the ministers’ invitation.

"We believe the policy or process of engagement might yield a result more positive to the union rather than going through the process of the courts, which have been given all sorts of labels by so many people,” he said. “But now that the new minister has offered us a window of opportunity and that he is open to suggestions on how AIPPA be amended we are certainly going to engage him and see if he will stick to his words."

Mr. Dongozi says, among the many issues the union will bring up, is the application process for registration by journalists. He describes the process as intrusive, because an applicant is required to give personal details such as when one's passport expires and where one's wife works. He says many journalists suspect it is an intelligence-gathering exercise by the Media and Information Commission for the country's spy agencies.

AIPPA requires journalists and publishing houses to apply to the Media and Information Commission for a license to operate in Zimbabwe. Any journalist caught practicing without a license faces a jail sentence of up to two years.

President Robert Mugabe recently told the South African Broadcasting Corporation that AIPPA is a good law and only what he called "bitter enemies of the party" would be denied registration.