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US Criticizes New Media Laws in Zimbabwe

The United States Tuesday criticized an amended new media law in Zimbabwe signed late last week by President Robert Mugabe. The State Department says it will make the tenuous situation for independent journalists in the country even worse.

The Bush administration has been a frequent critic of the Mugabe government's repressive approach to the political opposition and independent media, and it says the new press law raises serious doubts about its commitment to free elections in March.

The amended measure, tightening restrictions in a sweeping 2002 press law, was approved the Zimbabwean parliament after intense debate last November and signed into law by Mr. Mugabe last Friday.

Under its terms, journalists who work without a government license would be subject to prison terms of up to two years. It also bars foreign journalists from working permanently in the southern African country.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the existing law has often been used to shut down the country's independent newspapers and that U.S. officials believe the amended version can only make matters worse:

"The steps raise serious doubt whether the government intends to hold free and fair parliamentary elections in March," he said. "Stifling free discussion of political viewpoints through this law is inconsistent with election guidelines that were adopted by the South African Development Community in August of 2004. So we repeat our view that the government should allow independent daily newspapers to reopen, and should lift licensing restrictions on journalists."

The amended new law has also been criticized by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the CPJ. Its director, Ann Cooper, said the group is deeply troubled by the measure, which she said will have a further chilling effect on journalism in Zimbabwe.

The CPJ called on the Southern African Development Community, and particularly South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been mediating between the government and opposition in Zimbabwe, to hold that country accountable to regional democratic standards.

Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo has defended the press law amendments as necessary to protect the state from attacks by its enemies.