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An international press freedom group has condemned the Zimbabwe government’s crackdown this week on two foreign journalists in the country. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) charges that the arrests of al-Jazeera reporter Haru Mutasa and cameraman Austin Gundani on Tuesday underscore the harmful consequences of continuing tensions within President Robert Mugabe’s power-sharing government.
The journalists were allegedly mistreated and jailed for about three hours while trying to cover a cabinet meeting that was boycotted by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai is currently on a tour of southern African countries and the United Kingdom to brief leaders on why he has withdrawn indefinitely from the unity government. President Mugabe is also out of the country, attending an African Union-sponsored summit on internationally displaced people (IDPs) in the Uganda capital, Kampala.
The director of the Washington, D.C. office of Reporters Without Borders, Clothilde de Coz, says that all signs point to continued rough going for free speech advocates in Zimbabwe’s quest for democracy.
“There is a political battle. And the simple fact that they can’t cover a cabinet meeting is already something that shows that they have to work undercover, and they have to hide what they are doing because they can’t do it publicly,” she said.
Not only has the Mugabe government kept a tight leash on coverage by the local media in Zimbabwe, but during the past year, it also closed down bureaus and offices of several international outlets. RSF’s Clothilde de Coz says there are distinctions in the ways Harare treats the local press and international correspondents.
“Simply foreign media, what they risk is to be expelled, to be kidnapped. And the international community will raise really quickly about their cases. Local journalists are in a worse situation because they are in the country, and they fear all their relatives are also in the country. And so they are not they only one to fear what’s happening,” she points out.
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As a case in point of worsening conditions during the past ten months, de Coz points to local reporter Jestina Mukoko, who was abducted by state security in December, and detained, tortured, and denied medicine for three months until a Zimbabwe court ordered her release and dismissed all government charges against her. Mukoko, a top journalist in the country, covered security issues of great sensitivity to the Harare government.
But with Mr. Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) entering the government, de Coz says conditions during the past few months have also shifted somewhat in a more positive direction.
“What we saw is what happened this (past) summer: the fact that the BBC and CNN could air again and the independent newspaper Daily News was able to be published were good signs. Zimbabwe jumped (up) in our index, in our ranking because the situation of the press was really better. And the Daily News, which was the leading independent newspaper, was closed for six years. And then it could be published this (past) summer,” she noted.
Ironically, the al-Jazeera network, based in Doha, was the first foreign television agency allowed to open a permanent bureau in Zimbabwe in recent years. Clothilde de Coz suggests that this week’s arrests of the Doha-based outlet’s Harare correspondent and video-journalist may have been engineered by the government to show that even those who have received somewhat favored treatment from the government are also subject to Harare’s strict rules governing the press.
“It’s a kind of intimidation. It’s not because you’re the first one to be a correspondent there in the country that you have privileges. If you attempt to cover, for example, a cabinet meeting, you can be in danger, too,” she explained.
With both President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai out of the country, the Reporters Without Borders representative is hopeful that discussions with foreign leaders on ways to restore stability and unity in government will also focus on issues about press freedoms. She says that engagement with the outside world on a more open, independent media is a good way to enhance Zimbabwe’s standing and its international reputation.