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Conditions Remain Difficult for Zimbabwe Reporters - 2003-05-03

As journalists around the globe observe World Press Freedom Day, Zimbabwe is no longer on the Committee to Protect Journalists' list of the 10 worst countries in which to be a journalist. But a regional media watchdog group says conditions remain difficult for reporters in Zimbabwe.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa says that more than half of the press freedom violations recorded in the region during the past year occurred in Zimbabwe.

While relations between the state and the independent media have always been uneasy, the situation for journalists worsened last year, when the government enacted its Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection Act (AIPPA).

Under provisions of the legislation, scores of journalists have been arrested and detained, some of whom were beaten by police and supporters of the ruling party. Some foreign journalists have been denied extensions to their work permits.

John Gambanga, the editor of Zimbabwe's biggest selling daily, The Daily News, says the pressure cannot be ignored.

"AIPPA is one of the most draconian pieces of legislation ever to be passed in this country. There are certain articles, which we feel if we publish, we are going to end up in jail," he said. "I have been arrested myself, and when you spend a night or two behind bars, when you come back to the newsroom, it's either you quit, as some of our journalists have done during the last 24 months, or you decide to soldier on, but sometimes you have to tread very carefully."

So far, the state has failed to win a single conviction against the journalists it has taken to court on charges including publishing falsehoods. But spending an hour, let alone a night, in police cells can be punishment enough.

Daily News reporter Guthrie Munyuki spent two nights in a Harare police cell after being arrested while covering an opposition party organized rally on International Youth Day last year. While in custody, Mr. Munyuki says, he was severely assaulted by police. He suffered a fractured arm, but said he was denied medical attention. He describes the conditions in the cells.

"The cells normally would take up to about six people but us journalists and the MDC youth who were arrested that particular day were crammed in three cells where each cell averaged 27 people," he said. "There was no light. It was just filthy. There was a heavy stench coming from the urinary, and it was in winter; we had to fight for one blanket."

Mr. Munyuki and his colleagues, who were accused by the police of being part of the group of youths who allegedly threw stones at the police, were released without charge by a magistrate.

While the government has announced its intention to make some changes to the AIPPA, Zimbabwean journalists feel that nothing but total repeal of the act is good enough.