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Human Rights Watch Criticizes Media Repression in Zimbabwe

  • Scott Bobb

Watchdog group says President Mugabe's ZANU-PF party continues to restrict independent reporting by controlling security forces

A leading international human-rights group says Zimbabwe's unity government still has not implemented promised media reforms and that President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party still controls most levers of government despite a 14-month-old power-sharing accord.

Human Rights Watch says ZANU-PF continues to restrict independent reporting through its control of the country's security forces.

The coordinator of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe, Abigail Gamanya, says there have been some improvements in freedom of expression since Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change joined Zimbabwe's government more than one year ago.

"It is not as rampant as it used to be. However, the characteristics are still the same, where you find journalists being harassed, intimidated, fleeing the country. And the same instruments that were used for this repression are still in place," Gamanya said.

The Human Rights Watch report says media laws that criminalize any criticism of the government are still in place. Credentials for international journalists are heavily restricted. It says at least 15 journalists have been harassed, arbitrarily arrested or assaulted by security forces under the unity government.

A spokesman for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, Nixon Nyikadzino, says the government continues to block new independent media outlets through complicated licensing regulations.

"We still operate within the context of a [single] state broadcaster, a state radio station, state-run newspapers and only a minimum number of independent newspapers. So those factors point to an environment that is still muzzling freedom of expression whereby the media is not yet able to play its role critically, with the freedom it deserves," Nyikadzino said.

The Zimbabwean government recently announced a new media commission to oversee the promised reforms. But critics have blasted the commission, saying it is comprised of many of the same individuals who put together the current web of media restrictions.

The unity government has stabilized the economy and eased some political tensions. But the partners in the government remain deadlocked over certain senior political appointments.

In addition, ZANU-PF insists ending foreign broadcasts to Zimbabwe by stations such as SWRadio, the BBC and VOA.

Zimbabwean media analyst Rasweat Mukundu says this position is counter-productive.

"[The] call for these radio stations to be banned is contradictory to the principles that we are trying to push [in the area of] media freedoms. What the Zimbabwean government simply needs to do is open up the broadcasting sector and let the public choose which station they want to listen to," Mukundu said.

Human Rights Watch called for parties to the unity government to guarantee and promote freedom of expression and the media. They say such reforms are vital as they work to draft a new constitution and prepare for elections.

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