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Monday, 20 August, 2001, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
Zimbabwe arrests revive media crackdown fears
By BBC Monitoring's Peter Feuilherade
The detention this week of four journalists from Zimbabwe's Daily News has revived fears that measures against the independent press will be stepped up in the run-up to presidential elections due in 2002.
Geoff Nyarota, editor of the country¿s only independent daily newspaper, his deputy Bill Saidi, the news editor and a reporter were initially held on Wednesday on charges of publishing "rumour or false information likely to discredit the security forces".
The arrests were triggered by a Daily News report alleging that police had been involved in looting white-owned farms in the northwest of the country.
Zimbabwe police assistant commissioner Wayne Bvudzijena said the report was intended to malign the police "and by extension, probably the government as well".
The journalists were released a few hours later, after a High Court judge ruled that the charges were illegal.
However, on Thursday police laid new charges against the four journalists.
They now face charges of publishing subversive material, under a section of the Law and Order Maintenance Act.
This piece of legislation was devised by former Rhodesia's white minority rulers to suppress black opposition, and remained in force after Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain in 1980.
On Friday the Daily News reported that the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)-Zimbabwe Chapter had condemned the arrests, saying "the government was taking advantage of draconian and archaic laws to harass journalists".
The Daily News quoted Basildon Peta, the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, as saying he viewed the arrests "as part of a cocktail of measures meant to harass media practitioners ahead of the presidential poll".
Analysts interpreted the latest arrests as part of the government's strategy of keeping up the pressure on independent and opposition groups.
Earlier this year the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted "a significant increase in violence against journalists; the harsh anti-independent press rhetoric of the ruling ZANU-PF party; government efforts to regulate the accreditation of journalists; and efforts to block independent broadcasting".
In January, the presses of the Daily News were destroyed in a bomb attack.
Observers describe President Mugabe's campaign to crush the independent press as two-pronged.
One involves passing new laws including a register of journalists, more stringent libel laws and tougher sanctions against papers that attract persistent complaints.
The other involves the verbal and physical harassment of journalists opposed to the Mugabe regime.
In June, the government brought in new restrictions on the entry of foreign reporters.
Advocates of greater media autonomy fear that the Freedom of Information Bill, which parliament is expected to debate soon, could turn into another repressive piece of legislation meant to stifle the media.
In July there were reports that a serious rift had arisen between the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) board chairman, Gideon Gono, and Information and Publicity Minister Jonathan Moyo over the appointment of personnel to key positions.
The Standard newspaper reported that Gono wanted to appoint a new ZBC chief executive "free of political linkages, who could turn the corporation around".
Although pressed by the minister to change his decision, "Gono refused to budge, insisting that he wanted to do his job without political interference," the newspaper said.
President Robert Mugabe's administration still controls what listeners and viewers in Zimbabwe can receive.
The Broadcasting Services Bill, passed in April, enables the information minister to regulate new private radio and TV stations and community radios.
But media analysts say that despite the keen interest by private broadcasters to get on the air, new licences are unlikely to be issued soon.
In October 2000, the government shut down Zimbabwe's first independent radio station, Capital Radio, on the grounds that it threatened national security.
Another station, Radio VOP - Voice of the People, was launched in June 2000, just before parliamentary elections.
The station is still on the air, for just under an hour every evening on shortwave.
It hires airtime on a transmitter at the Radio Netherlands relay station in Madagascar.
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