Journalists and human rights lawyers in Zimbabwe said they are worried by authorities’ seizure of radios and mobile equipment that receive stations other than the state-controlled broadcaster. The development comes as the African country prepares for a constitutional referendum in March and elections later in the year.
Civic organizations in Zimbabwe said the seizure of radios by the police - first reported earlier this week - will result in people not making informed decisions on the country’s constitutional referendum in March.
The state broadcaster - which is controlled by President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party - is airing only positive comments about draft constitution. As a result, Zimbabweans wanting to learn other views are depending on broadcasts originating from outside the country.
Police, in turn, have been confiscating radios that pick up regional and international stations, including VOA.
Police acting illegally, advocates claim
Kumbirai Mafunda, spokesperson for Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said police are acting illegally.
“We believe that this ban has no basis in terms of the law. We are worried that state institutions are now denying people their fundamental freedoms," Mafunda said. "We are worried, but this is typical of paranoid states. We are preparing a challenge in the courts. We believe that there are chances of being successful as we defend people’s freedom[s] to associate, express themselves and everything.”
It was the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights which monitored police as they seized radios from the Zimbabwe Peace Project, which was distributing them to people in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.
Earlier this week, Innocent Matibiri, the number two police official in Zimbabwe, told parliament that 99 percent of non-governmental organizations operating in Zimbabwe were Western-sponsored and pushing a "regime change agenda" - a term describing the removal of President Mugabe. He said the distribution of radios was part of that agenda.
“It will be a laxity on our party [police] if we just see things being donated, being distributed, some unusual kind of generosity taking place and then we say just communicating radios," Matibiri said. "Why all of a sudden have you decided have you decided to be generous, going to the rural areas distributing radios?”
No one in parliament answered him.
The power of radio
At a cafe in Harare, several journalists spoke on the condition they remain anonymous. One said he could remember when the colonial regime of Ian Smith in the 1970s attempted to control what the people of Zimbabwe were listening to. Ironically at that time, it was the ZANU-PF party that was being targeted.
"And ZANU-PF were broadcasting from Mozambique," he said. "They managed to penetrate the barrier created by Smith. The minister of information was the presenter/producer of the programs. He knows that he is going to fail. And it is now even worse because there is now social media."
Another journalist said radio is still a very powerful medium in rural Zimbabwe. He added, "I think one thing you must not underrate is the power of radio. As elections approach, ZANU-PF is desperate to use any means possible to win an election. Most rural people access their information through the information through the radio, so ZANU-PF would not want such a development."
A third journalist said with today's technology it is more difficult to control how people get the news.
"They are simply wasting their time. In this age of technology, even if they take away those gadgets, people will have other means of getting information," he said. "Actually, they are now making people getting more interested in listening to the outside media instead of listening to their media that they have destroyed.”
Last week police in Zimbabwe warned that the activities of what they called Western-backed non-governmental organizations, verged on espionage and people receiving radios from these organizations could face arrest.