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Zimbabwe Lawmakers Delay Debate on Bill Curtailing Press Freedom

The Zimbabwe parliament has delayed debate for at least another 24 hours on a proposed law that is seen by legal analysts as curtailing freedom of speech and the press. The government has given no explanation for the delay.

The controversial "Access to Information Bill" has been widely condemned in Zimbabwe and abroad for its requirements that journalists must register for a government license.

The legislation also requires that all journalists must be Zimbabwe citizens, which bars almost all foreign correspondents from working in the country. Offenders face up to two years in jail.

Legal analysts also say the right of free speech in Zimbabwe will be violated because criticism of the government and the president is drastically restricted.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change has said it is surprised that the bill has not been debated. The party's chief spokesman on legal affairs David Coltart says the probable reason is that there were very few ruling ZANU-PF representatives in parliament and the government could not be sure that it had a majority to assure passage of the legislation.

Mr. Coltart said it is likely that the bill will be forced through parliament Wednesday.

Some political analysts suggest that the delay is connected with statements from President Robert Mugabe at the 14-nation Southern African Development Community summit in Malawi.

Mr. Mugabe said that he will ensure presidential elections in March are free and fair. He also agreed there will be no restrictions on journalists reporting on the elections. Mr. Mugabe has agreed to investigate political violence in Zimbabwe and to allow international media and observers to cover the election.

The MDC is skeptical of Mr. Mugabe's sincerity, saying, "We have seen Mr. Mugabe ignore every undertaking he has made and there is no reason to believe he will change."

Meanwhile, police dispersed a gathering by journalists protesting against the bill Monday outside parliament. The police told the 30 journalists present that they would be arrested, but declined to say under which law they would be prosecuted.

Last week, Zimbabwe's parliament, which is dominated by President Mugabe's supporters, passed two laws that bar foreign election monitors and allows authorities to break up political gatherings that are hostile to the government.