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Zimbabwe's Media Bill Causes Disagreement Within Ruling Party - 2002-01-24

A Zimbabwe government minister clashed in parliament with a senior ruling party official Thursday. The dispute is over a delay in introducing a proposed law that critics say will drastically limit freedom of speech and the press.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa accused Eddison Zvobgo, chairman of the parliamentary legal committee, of what the minister said was "holding parliament to ransom" as debate over the Access to Information Bill was again delayed Thursday.

Political analysts say the criticism of Mr. Zvobgo, who was for many year one of the closest advisors to President Robert Mugabe, is the first public sign of disagreement within the ruling party over the media bill.

If the legislation passes, all journalists will have to get a government license to work or face up to two years in jail for working illegally.

In reply to the minister's criticism, Mr. Zvobgo said more time was needed to study the bill, which he termed "confusing."

Parliament is due to meet again next Tuesday.

Government hostility to the media has continued, with a senior Zimbabwe official threatening to arrest South African and British journalists said to be in the country illegally.

State newspapers quote the permanent secretary for information, George Charamba, as alleging that at least four foreign-based journalists are in Zimbabwe posing as tourists.

"Our net is closing in on them," Mr. Charamba is quoted as saying. He accuses the reporters of having what he calls an "intelligence cover for a hostile power," which in the past has been official terminology for spies.

Regulations brought in by the government last year require foreign-based reporters to get a permit from the government at least one month before coming into Zimbabwe.

The government has taken an increasingly harsh line over news coverage during the past two years as publicity has grown over the worsening political and economic situation in Zimbabwe.

Last year, at least six foreign journalists were deported or were refused a renewal of their work permits. The editor of the independent Daily News newspaper has been arrested three times and the newspaper's printing press has been blown up.

The editor and chief reporter of an independent weekly, The Standard, were arrested and tortured by the army following a story over a possible military coup.

Meanwhile, at least three more deaths from invasions of white-owned commercial farms have been reported. The Commercial Farmers Union says militants loyal to President Mugabe have beaten to death a farm worker they accused of being a supporter of the opposition, while two night watchmen on another farm were shot dead by a militant.

Since invasions of commercial farms by militants began almost two years ago, at least 15 farmers and workers have been killed, while thousands have been beaten.

The Commercial Farmers Union says violence on farms is increasing as presidential elections scheduled for March draw nearer.