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US Condemns Zimbabwe Officials for Shuttering Newspaper - 2004-06-14

The United States Monday condemned Zimbabwe's government for its decision to shut down one of the country's few remaining independent newspapers. The State Department said the government of President Robert Mugabe appears intent on using media laws to silence its critics.

The United States is renewing its criticism of the Mugabe government following the closure of the weekly Harare newspaper the Tribune, one of a small handful of publications that has continued critical reporting of the administration in Harare despite a restrictive media law adopted two years ago.

The government-appointed Media and Information Commission ordered the Tribune shut down for a year late last week on a seeming technicality, that it had failed to properly notify authorities of a change in its ownership last March.

Launched two years ago, the Tribune, which has a circulation of 15,000, had been aggressively reporting on alleged government corruption, even though its new owner Kindness Paradza is a member of parliament from Mr. Mugabe's own ZANU-PF party.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher condemned the newspaper's closure as the only the latest in a series of actions aimed at silencing independent journalists. "The action is the latest in a series of assaults on press freedom and on access to independent information in Zimbabwe. It follows the government's attempts to tighten controls on internet use, last year's forced closure of the independent Daily News and the ongoing intimidation, harassment and prosecution of independent journalists. In this regard as well, we note with dismay that the government, last week, began its prosecution of the directors of the Daily News' parent company under repressive media control laws," he said.

Mr. Boucher said the Media and Information Commission seems clearly intent on using that he termed the country's "draconian" media law as a political tool, to silence voices raising legitimate concerns about government corruption, human rights violations, economic mismanagement and abuse of democratic institutions and the rule of law.

The Tribune owner, Mr. Paradza, told reporters his paper was just reporting "news as news," and taking Mr. Mugabe up on his expressed wishes that official corruption in the country be "nipped in the bud."

Zimbabwe's opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, says the closure of the Tribune will make it harder for Zimbabweans to get objective views in the run-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for next March.

In another development, the State Department criticized the Mugabe government's announcement last week that it will nationalize all farmland and wildlife reserves that it had not already confiscated under a program of land seizures begun four years ago.

A spokeswoman here called the plan "the latest in a continuum of economic missteps" that have devastated Zimbabwe's economy and damaged the quality of life of virtually all the country's people.

She said if carried out, the abolition of private land ownership would threaten further economic harm not only to Zimbabwean agriculture, but also to its financial, tourism, investment and other sectors.

The United States has been a consistent critic of the Mugabe government's land-reform program, which has led to the seizure of thousands of white-owned commercial farms and their nominal hand over to landless blacks. U.S. officials say many prime parcels have would up in the hands of Mugabe family members and associates.