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Zimbabwe media 'still not free'

Zimbabweans read the Herald, file image
For now, Zimbabwe has two daily newspapers - both controlled by the state

As the BBC prepares to broadcast a day of programmes from Zimbabwe for the first time since officials lifted a ban on foreign reporters, Zimbabwean journalist Brian Hungwe says he and his colleagues are still concerned about restrictions.

Two months after the formation of Zimbabwe's unity government a privately owned daily newspaper called NewsDay interviewed and recruited staff, preparing for its imminent launch.

That was six months ago, but the paper has not yet printed its first edition.

Its publishers cannot get to work until they have been licensed by the government's media watchdog, the Zimbabwe Media Commission. There is just one problem - the commission does not yet exist.

MEDIA CRACKDOWN
January 2002
New law bars foreign correspondents and orders journalists to seek accreditation
September 2003
Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday closed down
January 2004
The Weekly Times closed down
June 2004
The Tribune closed down

It is one example of how guarantees of press freedom made by President Robert Mugabe's officials have long been merely lip service.

Over the last nine turbulent years newspapers have been shut down, scores of journalists have been arrested and some have even been tortured.

Eight months after Mr Mugabe entered into a power-sharing government with his former rival Morgan Tsvangirai, there is a feeling that significant changes to guarantee freedom of the press have not yet been put in place.

Just this week, Mr Mugabe's officials made contentious military appointments in media bodies.

Retired military personnel and former spies were appointed to sit on the boards of state-controlled newspapers, the country's sole broadcaster ZBC, and New Ziana, a news agency.

People want a variety of views, different platforms to air their anxieties, their concerns
Barnabas Thondlana
NewsDay

The Zimbabwean Union of Journalists says the appointments have made journalists "very suspicious of government intentions" and created "unnecessary political tension".

"It's a sinister attempt to continue to muzzle the press, and instituting fear, through the arbitrary appointments of the military into media bodies," says the union's Foster Dongozi.

"The army belongs to the barracks, and they have no role to play in newspapers."

'Hangman' returns

Political analyst Lovemore Madhuku, from the University of Zimbabwe, agrees.

"Zanu-PF is clearly sending a message that nothing has changed," he says.

Zimbabwe journalists demonstrate in 2006
Zimbabwe journalists have long felt the force of state interference

"They [the soldiers] have no meaningful role to play in all those institutions, it's just an arrogant display of power.

"Perhaps they want to send a message to their supporters that they are still in charge."

Another move that has irritated Zanu-PF critics is the appointment of Tafataona Mahoso as chairman of the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, a body responsible for granting new radio and television licences.

He was previously head of the Media and Information Commission, where he was dubbed "media hangman" by journalists after engineering the shutting down of privately owned newspapers.

The Movement for Democratic Change, now sharing power with former Zanu-PF foes, expressed its displeasure with the situation in a statement.

"The biggest threat to democracy is not only the unilateral appointments but the decision to recycle celebrated media hangman, Mahoso," it said.

'No alternative view'

Two months after parliament handed Mr Mugabe the names of people that should constitute the Zimbabwe Media Commission, the body is still to be properly constituted.

This is despite European Union warnings that targeted sanctions would remain in place until all outstanding issues, including key media reforms, have been resolved.

ZIMBABWE SANCTIONS
EU: 2002 to present
Assets freeze and travel ban on some Mugabe allies, arms-sale ban
US: 2003 to present
Trade ban against 250 Zimbabwean individuals and 17 companies
Other countries
Canada, Australia and UK among nations to have imposed their own targeted sanctions
Sources: EU, Reuters, US treasury, UK Foreign Office

At the headquarters of NewsDay, adjacent to the imposing Zanu-PF headquarters, a whole room is being cleared for desks and journalists.

Barnabas Thondlana, the incoming NewsDay editor, says delays to the paper's launch can be "frustrating", but he remains "very optimistic" that the paper will get its licence.

"People want a variety of views, different platforms to air their anxieties, their concerns," he said.

"They have been starved of an alternative view over the past decade, and we are coming in to close that gap."

Piles of papers and CVs fill his desk, in a tiny office he shares with his deputy.

"The government has clearly stated that they are opening up the media landscape, that they are bringing in new players," he said.

"We shall play a key role in national healing and reconciliation, creating a platform for debates with business, the ordinary citizen and authorities."

But they continue to wait.

For now, the only voice on the streets every day is the state-controlled media - the Herald and the Chronicle newspapers.

They have churned out propaganda that has kept Mr Mugabe's government alive over the past 29 years.

For more information on the BBC's day of programmes from Zimbabwe, visit the World Service Africa homepage.



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