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Zimbabwe Opposition Criticizes New Media Bill - 2002-01-31

Zimbabwe's parliament passed a new bill that critics say limits the freedom of the independent and foreign press ahead of crucial presidential elections in March. They say it is aimed at suppressing criticism of President Robert Mugabe.

Parliament passed the bill without objection after a six-hour debate. The opposition, which has strongly opposed the measure, was heavily outnumbered and did not call for a vote.

The bill is called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Critics say it will limit the ability of foreign reporters to work in Zimbabwe, and will place stringent controls on the independent local media.

The measure has earned widespread condemnation from the international committee and press freedom groups. Under its provisions, journalists will have to apply for accreditation each year from a special commission, appointed by Information Minister Jonathan Moyo. Applications for accreditation can be turned down for any reason.

In his speech before parliament urging passage of the bill, Mr. Moyo singled out a number of reporters for strong criticism, accusing them of conspiring against the government.

Only Zimbabwean citizens and permanent residents will be able to work full-time in Zimbabwe. Foreign reporters will be allowed to work in the country for limited time periods.

The media bill is one of a series of laws passed this month, which critics say are aimed at squashing criticism of the government ahead of presidential elections scheduled for March.

The other measures passed easily in a legislature heavily dominated by the ruling party, ZANU-PF. But passage of the media bill was held up for weeks because of opposition from within ZANU-PF. The bill was modified several times as the ruling party attempted to push it through parliament over the objections of its own lawmakers.

Members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, say they are still very unhappy with the bill, even in its amended form. But in the parliamentary committee that handled the bill, the only MDC committee member agreed to its passage.

Many MDC members were initially puzzled and distressed by that move. But the committee member, Welshman Ncube, says he accepted the measure after ZANU-PF agreed to several amendments, which he says soften the bill's impact on press freedoms.

One of those amendments will allow journalists who are currently accredited to continue working in Zimbabwe until the end of the year, without applying for new accreditation.