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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 15:03 GMT
Zimbabwe denies muzzling media
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe
Mugabe appears undeterred by international pressure
The Zimbabwean Government has rejected widespread criticism of a new media law passed by parliament on Thursday.

Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa told the BBC there was nothing in the legislation which was intended to stifle dissent.

He said international condemnation was part of a campaign to destabilise President Mugabe's government ahead of presidential elections in March.

Earlier, Britain and the United States strongly condemned the law.

President Robert Mugabe is scheduled to hold his first two campaign rallies on Friday in what is likely to be the most fiercely contested presidential election since the country's independence in 1980.

Media Law
Journalists licensed by media commission
Limits on reporting by foreign correspondents
Journalists only able to report official comments on government work
Massive fines or up to two years in prison for violating regulations

Critics say the law is a key part of the 77-year-old head of state's drive to silence opposition to his bid for re-election.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said he found it almost impossible to believe that free and fair elections could now be held in the country.

After talks with US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington, he said the European Union would have to take that into account when it decided whether or not to trigger sanctions that have already been agreed in principle.


It is obvious the government is determined to run a closed shop

Morgan Tsvangirai

Mr Powell added his condemnation and said the United States was co-ordinating with Britain and others about what to do next.

The controversial media law, which limits the freedoms of independent and foreign journalists, was passed on Thursday after being altered slightly to take account of criticism from within President Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

'Desperate regime'

On Wednesday, Commonwealth foreign ministers called for an end to violence and intimidation in the country in the run-up to elections, but refused to back a UK call for Zimbabwe to be suspended from the body.

Newspaper billboards
Mr Mugabe already has tight control over much of the media

Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), told the BBC that the law was "the sign of a desperate regime trying to muzzle the press".

The European Union has threatened to impose sanctions if its observers are not allowed into the country by the weekend.

But Mr Tsvangirai doubted that the presence of observers would make any difference to the outcome anyway.

"It's now up to the people of Zimbabwe to see what it can salvage from this situation," he said.

Concessions

Under the controversial media law, foreign journalists will not be allowed to base themselves in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe parliament
The bill faced criticism from within Mr Mugabe's own party
Reports deemed to cause alarm and despondency are forbidden.

But, in a concession to opponents, media organisations which are already registered in Zimbabwe will not have to apply for new licences as stated in previous drafts.

The new version also differs in allowing foreigners to take non-controlling stakes in Zimbabwean media organisations.

The government had originally wanted to pass the bill last year and debate has been delayed on several occasions following criticism from journalists, the international community and southern African leaders.

Journalists had warned that they would ask the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional as soon as it was passed.

Election fever

The bill went through parliament as the contest for presidential elections in Zimbabwe officially began - with President Mugabe and Mr Tsvangirai filing their nomination papers.

MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai believes he will win if polling is fair
Human rights groups report a sharp increase in political violence in recent weeks.

The leader of the Movement for Democratic Change said, when filing his papers at the court, that intimidation was still widespread across the country.

He said opposition officials were being told they would be arrested if any slogans were chanted or party posters displayed at a rally scheduled on Sunday in Mutare in eastern Zimbabwe.

"This is not in the spirit of maintaining law and order and a spirit of free campaigning," he said.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Peter Biles
"Independent journalists have been at the forefront of protests"
Morgan Tsvangirai, Movement for Democratic Change
"You can not talk of democracy when you are suppressing your own people"
The BBC's Rageh Omaar
"Journalists can only report official comments"
See also:

08 Jan 02 | Africa
Zimbabwe's controversial bills
30 Jan 02 | Africa
Suspension 'not the answer'
01 Feb 02 | Africa
Media rounds on Zimbabwe law
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