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Bill Limiting Media Rights, Free Speech Delayed in Zimbabwe's Parliament - 2002-01-23

The parliament in Zimbabwe has postponed debate again on a proposed law aimed at controlling the media and freedom of speech. The government has not indicated when the Access to Information Bill will go before parliament.

Even its supporters seem to be having difficulty with the controversial bill. For the second day in a row they have limited debate on it in parliament. And last week the government made 39 changes to the bill, which has been widely viewed in Zimbabwe and abroad as clamping down on freedom of expression and the press.

Members of parliament were told Wednesday that the reason for the latest delay is that the legal committee needs more time to examine the bill.

The new version of the proposed law is seen by legal analysts as being almost the same as the original. Legal specialists in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change say the two most objectionable provisions are unchanged, the requirement for all journalists to be licensed by the government and the creation of a government-appointed press commission that will monitor the conduct of journalists.

If the bill is approved, journalists who work without a license would face up to two years jail.

One slight concession in the new version, according to the MDC, is that journalists can be permanent residents and not citizens as was originally proposed. Analysts say, however, this change still bars almost all foreign journalists from working in Zimbabwe. Also dropped from the bill is the ban on criticism of the president. But the MDC has said this makes no difference as criticism of the president is a crime under the Public Order Law, which came into effect on Tuesday.

A senior official of the MDC disputes suggestions by some analysts that the delay in introducing the bill is because some members of the ruling ZANU-PF party oppose clamps on press freedom.

The MDC official said the fact that the main clauses have been retained shows there is no real split in the ruling party. He described the changes as "cosmetic."