The approval by Zimbabwe's parliament of a law limiting press freedoms drew quick condemnation Thursday from Secretary of State Colin Powell and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who held talks on Zimbabwe and other issues in Washington. Both the European Union and the United States are weighing targeted sanctions against President Robert Mugabe and other senior officials in Harare if the March elections there are deemed unfair.
The approval of the restrictive press law by Zimbabwe's parliament came as Mr. Powell and his British counterpart were meeting here, and their talks included possible punitive measures the United States and European Union might take in light of the growing threat to democracy in Zimbabwe.
Mr. Straw made clear that the curbs on both foreign and independent local journalists in Zimbabwe make the imposition of sanctions against Zimbabwe's ruling circle much more likely.
"I wholly condemn the passage of these press laws," said Mr. Straw. "I find it almost impossible to comprehend how free and fair elections can be held in Zimbabwe when such laws have been passed and that will be a matter which will have to be weighed very carefully in the balance by the European Union to decide whether the sanctions, which in principle were decided upon earlier this week ought to be triggered."
The European Union, in its action Monday, agreed to impose a travel ban on Mr. Mugabe and other top leaders in Harare and their families and to freeze their financial assets abroad if Zimbabwe's government prevented the deployment of EU observers to the March elections.
The penalties closely parallel U.S. sanctions authorized under a measure approved overwhelmingly by the Congress and signed into law by President Bush in December. In his remarks, Secretary Powell said there would be close coordination of U.S. and European policy on the election issue:
"I've spoken out strongly in the past with respect to the actions President Mugabe is taking within Zimbabwe, and I also condemn the press law as the secretary did," said Mr. Powell. "And we're in close coordination with our British colleagues and with others as to what action might be appropriate as we move forward."
Mr. Powell has long been on record publicly suggesting that Mr. Mugabe, who has run Zimbabwe since it gained independence in 1980, should step aside. But the 77-year-old leader has spurned such advice and will seek another six-year term in the elections sent for March 9 and 10.
The Bush administration has been sharply critical in recent months of what is seen here as escalating government-sponsored intimidation and violence, and the harassment of the country's beleaguered independent press.