THE International Federation of Journalists today joined press freedom groups in declaring that Zimbabwe's free press has been mortally wounded after parliament passed a media bill essentially gagging independent journalists ahead of the country's contentious presidential election in March.
"This bill is an attempt to kill off any media criticism as a prelude to stealing a democratic election," said Aidan White, General Secretary of the IFJ "It is the kiss of death for press freedom in Zimbabwe." The legislation passed yesterday makes it illegal for journalists to operate without government accreditation and allows foreign correspondents into the country only to cover specific events.
"This bill also appears to make criticism of the president and scrutiny of the government a criminal offence", said Aidan White. "It is now up to the international community, in Africa and all around the world, to condemn this assault on free expression and to isolate the Mugabe regime".
Independent newspapers have been essential in exposing the country's economic collapse, the wave of political violence by ruling party militants against opposition activists and the violent occupation of white-owned farms by those militants.
"We defy everything in this bill. It prevents us from reporting the issues," said Basildon Peta, who heads the IFJ affiliated Zimbabwe Union of Journalists. "It's a fascist piece of legislation aimed at gagging the media." Mugabe's information minister, Jonathan Moyo, pushed for the proposed law by attacking white journalists and international news organizations as racially biased.
About 100 reporters and editors work at independent newspapers and agencies in Zimbabwe. There are no independent radio or television stations as efforts to create them have been squashed by Mugabe.
Peta and other independent journalists have said they would risk jail by not registering for the required accreditation. The bill also prescribes heavy fines for journalists publishing stories on "protected" information, or news likely to cause alarm and despondency, which could range from rumors, advice offered to Mugabe or minutes of cabinet meetings.
The media bill bans foreigners from working as correspondents in the country and imposes jail terms for dissident journalists. It is, says the IFJ, "the hysterical response of a regime under siege for its callous, undemocratic and violent form of politics".
The bill, officially the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, creates a new Media and Information Commission with powers to control all media within Zimbabwe. It comes after months of attacks on journalists and media organisations.
The IFJ pledged to fight the new law. "In particular, the IFJ and its member unions fully support Zimbabwean journalists to defy this legislation", said Aidan White.