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Introduction
 
Just before the elections President Mugabe pushed through a controversial bill restricting the media. Zimbabwe journalist Basildon Peta considers what it means for him

If I were to obey the draconian law resticting coverage of the election, this would have been my last contribution to the British media.

However, I am determined not to do this despite the hefty fines and two-year jail terms that linger over the head of anyone offending the terms of the law.

This is because the access to information and protection of privacy bill is so absurd and abominable that many believe it would not pass the test of constitutional legitimacy even under a legal system run by the ousted Taleban regime of Afghanistan.

Even though President Robert Mugabe has stuffed the judiciary with loyalists and has frustrated many independent judges into resigning, I do not see any self-respecting judicial officer jailing any journalist defying the patently illegal and unconstitutional bill.

My defiance of the bill will be based on many of its prescriptions which I cannot simply afford to countenance.

My career over the years has thrived on my ability to get information on the proceedings of President Mugabe's confidential cabinet meetings and on exposing his ruling party's distinguished career of misrule.

Protecting the corrupt?

The bill contains very broad provisions purporting to protect the privacy of individuals. It makes it possible for any corrupt people in government to hide under the banner of privacy.

It sets imprisonment and jail terms for journalists publishing stories on protected information like cabinet meetings and information held by different government departments.

A journalist can only publish information voluntarily released by a department head. The bill prescribes heavy fines of about $3,000 and two-year jail terms for journalists publishing stories likely to cause "alarm, fear and despondency".

However, the scope of these stories is not defined in the bill. Anything that offends President Mugabe might be interpreted as having the effect of causing "alarm and despondency" as we have seen in the past.

The bill will also ban journalists from publishing stories that discriminate on the basis of political affiliation, sex, religion, beliefs, education, race etc... The scope of these stories is also not defined.

It threatens to jail journalists who practise "unethical journalism" and it bans foreign correspondents from working in Zimbabwe. Most of them are currently being refused entry into the country anyway.

Information Minister Jonathan Moyo will have the power to veto accreditation for any journalist he does not like. The net effect of the new law is to reduce any journalist to an official biographer, something I am not prepared to be.

British 'terrorism'

Coupled with the new media bill is the equally draconian Public Order and Security Bill that will impose life and death sentences on Zimbabweans accused of assisting in terrorism, espionage, banditry, sabotage and treason against President Mugabe's government. These offences are not clearly defined in the bill.

But just as an example, five journalists, including myself, were earlier this year accused by Mr Mugabe's government of aiding terrorism through our reports in the British press.

Mr Mugabe has repeatedly accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of hatching "terrorist" plots to oust the Zimbabwe Government. He has accused the British press of conspiring in these plots.

So writing a story for British media when you are Zimbabwean will inevitably be construed as aiding terrorism.

Boycott

The new media bill effectively reduces all journalists in Zimbabwe to entertainment reporters who can only cover musical shows, discos, films and other limited events that will guarantee producing copy which may not cause "fear, alarm and despondency".

Seasoned political writers might have to merely restrict themselves to covering ruling party rallies in glowing terms to avoid being penalised under the sweeping provisions of the bill.

I am only glad that the obnoxious terms of this new law have only united all journalists working in the private media who are all unanimously agreed on the need for a boycott.

This will leave the Zimbabwe Government with the stark option of arresting over 100 journalists who will boycott the bill all at once.

After reading the bill several times over, the only good thing about it is that it might in fact expedite the political demise of President Mugabe if he implements its foolish provisions.

Basildon Peta is secretary general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, and works for the Financial Gazette in Harare and London's The Independent. Since writing this article he was briefly arrested, and then fled the country following a smear campaign against him.


Writing a story for a British media when you are Zimbabwean will inevitably be construed as aiding terrorism

Newspaper billboards
The new media bill effectively reduces all journalists in Zimbabwe to entertainment reporters

President Mugabe
President Mugabe
After reading the bill several times over, the only good thing about it is that it might in fact expedite the demise of President

Information Minister Jonathan Moyo
Information Minister Jonathan Moyo
 
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