Andrew Meldrum worked in Zimbabwe for 23 years, from 1980 to 2003 until state agents illegally threw him out of the country. He was a freelance journalist who wrote primarily for The Guardian and The Economist. 

Printing presses destroyed by massive bombs. Five newspapers outlawed and closed down. Scores of journalists jailed on spurious charges. Editors, reporters, photographers and videographers beaten, tortured and murdered. Laws that give the state a monopoly on all radio and television broadcasting. Monitoring of personal email use.

These are all tactics used by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's regime to censor the free flow of information in that southern African country. According to rankings by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Paris-based organization, Reporters Without Borders, Zimbabwe is one of the most highly restrictive countries against the press in the world. 
Journalistic Repression in Zimbabwe
Since 2000, when a new opposition challenged Mugabe, he has worked to muzzle the press. Mugabe did not mind when the press concentrated on his seizures of white-owned farms. He wanted the world to view him as the radical African leader who rid his country of white farmers, a vestige of colonialism. But Mugabe did not want the press to report that he was using systematic state torture and violence against blacks opposed to his rule.

When I uncovered human rights abuses against black Zimbabweans, Mugabe and the state media labeled me a "terrorist." I was knocked unconscious by one of Mugabe's 'war vets' who hit my head with a rock. In May 2002, I was jailed for two days and charged with “publishing a falsehood,” a crime that carried a two-year jail sentence. My lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, defended me brilliantly and I was acquitted. I continued reporting in Zimbabwe until May 2003 when I was abducted by state agents, held captive with a hood over my head and forced onto a plane that flew me out of the country.

I was the last resident foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe. Since then foreign journalists have had to sneak into the country as tourists and report undercover. Several have been caught by authorities including New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak, who spent several days in jail in 2007. He, too, stood trial and was acquitted thanks to lawyer Mtetwa. Beatrice Mtetwa is one of the outstanding heroes of the battle to keep a shred of the free press alive in Zimbabwe. She has defended several journalists, both foreign and Zimbabwean, as well as many more opposition supporters and ordinary Zimbabweans. She has been beaten twice by police, but this has not deterred her from crusading for the rule of law. Mtetwa has also represented the handful of courageous Zimbabwean journalists who continue to write for the international media, including Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France- Presse, The London Times and The Telegraph.

Visitors to Zimbabwe are struck by how the pro-Mugabe propaganda is spewed forth by state newspapers, television and radio. Many Zimbabweans complain that no matter how hard they try to ignore the constant stream of state diatribes, it still gets to them. The Mugabe government shut down the country's most widely circulated newspaper, the Daily News, in 2003, as well as the country's two daily newspapers and both state-owned government mouthpieces, which spout virulent rhetoric that media monitoring groups and the European Union have blamed the government propaganda for whipping up government supporters to carry out violence against supporters of opposition groups.




Two fiercely independent weekly newspapers managed to keep publishing in Zimbabwe. The Independent and the Standard, both owned by Trevor Ncube, publish on Fridays and Sundays, respectively. They directly contradict government propaganda, report on abuses and uncover corruption scandals. Their journalists have spent many nights in jail but they remain determined to continue. “Each week we are never sure which story or what headline is going to land some of us in jail,” said one editor of the Zimbabwe Independent. The Zimbabwean state holds a monopoly on all television and radio broadcasts. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation competes with the state newspapers for the shrillest pro-government coverage.

Exiled journalist Wilf Mbanga spotted a loophole in Mugabe's stringent anti-press laws that allow the importation of newspapers printed outside the country. He launched The Zimbabwean, which has achieved a wide circulation in the country. In the past few months the government has slapped a hefty import duty on the paper and its delivery truck was firebombed. Foreign correspondents continue to surreptitiously sneak into the country as tourists. Many use local Zimbabwean journalists to provide reporting from townships and rural areas where they are not able to go unnoticed.

In 2010, with the creation of a coalition government, Mugabe has been forced to relax his grip on the media. His government has allowed some new daily newspapers to publish, including NewsDay. In addition, the government has allowed foreign news organizations like the BBC and CNN to set up operations in Zimbabwe. Although the Mugabe government tries to control the news, determined journalists—Zimbabwean and foreign alike—continue to battle to keep getting the story out to the international community and to the Zimbabwean public.
Partial and Unsatisfactory Reforms
However, the Committee to Protect Journalists has been following the situation in Zimbabwe for years and believes that despite some cosmetic reforms, the Mugabe government remains intent on smothering as much of the independent press as possible.

“It is more than two years since the Global Political Agreement (the pact to create a power-sharing government between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and both wings of the opposition, Movement for Democratic Change) and many of the media reforms that were pledged have not been implemented,” said Mohamed Keita, advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The state still holds a monopoly on broadcasting. Zimbabwe remains a dangerous place for journalists to work, especially frontline journalists such as photographers and videographers covering public demonstrations. The state is still using regulations to harass and prosecute journalists. Journalists are still restricted.” Keita said that although the Harare government has allowed two new daily newspapers to begin publishing, it has not changed what remains “a fundamentally repressive situation for the press.”



Zimbabwe is by no means the worst in Africa, according to Keita. Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia are considered to be among the most repressive.  Rwanda is worsening in the run-up to its elections, where many journalists have fled the country and gone into exile. “Sometimes it is hard to understand what keeps journalists going when they have so many obstacles and they face so much danger,” said Keita. “They have a passion for their work. Even though they are beaten and arrested, they keep going. They have a conviction that their work is important.” Keita agrees that journalism is crucial for the growth of democracy in Africa. “Press freedom and the free flow of information is a requirement of a democratic society. An informed citizenry is better able to make good decisions on governance and to hold elected leaders accountable.  Journalism is essential to democracy, anywhere in the world. The press is the mechanism by which populations can hold governments accountable. It is a public watchdog, especially in places where there is little transparency. A free press is also important economically because it is an important factor in a country’s investment climate. Potential investors must see that there is a free press and clear and transparent information on governance.”
Glimmers of Hope
Keita does not want to give the impression that all is bad news regarding the press in Africa. “There are a few good stories,” he says, particularly with the growing role of new media. “Mozambique is one of the examples of how new media has empowered the press,” said Keita. “The food riots of September 2010 were a local story but bloggers and Mozambican ‘citizen journalists’ used photos taken with their cell phones to show police brutality. Largely thanks to their efforts, the Mozambican riots became a major international story.”  It is becoming more apparent that in the globalized world of internet and new media, censorship has to go far beyond simply excising a newspaper article, expelling a journalist or even shutting down a newspaper.  The internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, smart phones, digital cameras as well as short-wave radio networks have all helped spread the Zimbabwean story around the world and, crucially, back into the country. Mugabe works hard to control the flow of information, but in the globalized world of every growing information technology, it is becoming more difficult for him to succeed.

Zimbabwe has an estimated 100,000 internet users, a relatively high ratio for an African country. Several Zimbabwean journalists who are in exile have taken advantage of the new technology with online news services.  Many Zimbabweans access the internet from internet cafes in Harare and other major cities. Zimbabwe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization, have caught on to this and agents now haunt the cafes to hunt for anti-government activity. Although the state controls all AM and FM broadcasts by jamming broadcasts using equipment purchased from China, enterprising Zimbabwean journalists are using new media to pierce Mugabe's “radio curtain.”  Stations are sending news bulletins, featuring special reports critical of the Mugabe regime, via text message to thousands of cell phones in Zimbabwe. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media are also used.

This use of new media is crucial for reaching Zimbabwe’s rural areas, where more than 60 percent of the population lives. The shortwave reception for these shows is often scratchy but these efforts all have devoted listenership.  Gerry Jackson produced Short Wave Radio Africa with a team of exiled Zimbabwean journalists in England and broadcast back into Zimbabwe. “Studio 7” is produced by the Voice of America in Washington, DC with exiled Zimbabwean journalists Ray Choto, Blessing Zulu and Sandra Nyaira, and it is relayed back into Zimbabwe. The "Voice of the People" is also produced in the Netherlands and sent back into Zimbabwe.

Although Mugabe has gone to great lengths to silence journalists, Zimbabwe's ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis succeeds in grabbing headlines around the world. Revelations of state torture and the chaos caused by corruption and economic mismanagement have been reported by brave Zimbabwean journalists, determined foreign correspondents and courageous lawyers.  In addition, the burgeoning developments in information technology are making it ever more difficult to effectively censor the press. In recent years the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe has been one of the most widely covered African stories in the American and British press.  It is a dangerous job, but journalists are committed to their mission to report all the news because they believe it is essential to democracy, human rights and economic development.