Freedom of Press in Zimbabwe

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Pressing Change

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.