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  • Amid talks deadlock, Mugabe signs security and media law reforms in Zimbabwe
    The Associated Press (AP)
    January 19, 2008

    Harare, Zimbabwe: President Robert Mugabe signed into law changes to Zimbabwe's media, security and electoral laws negotiated with the opposition before March presidential and parliamentary elections, the government-controlled Herald newspaper reported Saturday.

    The amendments - negotiated in South Africa-mediated talks between the ruling party and opposition aimed at ending Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis - were rushed through parliament at the end of 2007.

    The opposition has given a muted welcome to the amendments, but says nothing short of a new constitution would guarantee polling was free and fair. Most civic groups agree.

    The new security laws make it easier to hold political rallies, which in the past were often banned by police on the pretense that parties failed to meet strict security requirements. Under the new legislation, only courts can ban political activities on security grounds.

    The amendment will be tested Wednesday when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change plans to hold a "Freedom Walk" in Harare to protest the worsening economic hardships and press its demands for constitutional reform.

    Police have not commented on the march or its possible security risks, and it remains unclear whether they planned to move against demonstrators. The state media, however, has accused the opposition of taking a confrontational stance despite months of negotiations with the ruling party on political reforms. South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was appointed mediator after a brutal government clampdown in March, visited Harare on Thursday for talks with Mugabe and opposition leaders that ended inconclusively.

    Mbeki told reporters in Harare that work was still in progress on what he called outstanding "impediments," without elaborating. There is a news blackout on the talks, though opposition demands for a new constitution have been the main unresolved issue.

    Uncharacteristically, Mugabe refused to comment Thursday and appeared terse and irritated in a news brief to state television. His government insists there is not enough time before March elections to meet all the opposition demands, but has refused to delay the vote until June, as demanded by the opposition. Mugabe, 83, is widely expected to win the elections, given his party's hold on power and divisions in the opposition movement.

    The revised media laws relax rules for journalists obtaining licenses, and sets up a new licensing authority - the Zimbabwe Media Commission.

    Independent media groups, which are virtually outlawed at present, say will also be put to the test in coming weeks as foreign journalists seek visas and state media accreditation to visit Zimbabwe for the elections. In the recent past, foreign journalists have routinely been denied visas and accreditation for reporting from Zimbabwe.

    The electoral amendments provide for opposition lawmakers to nominate some members of the state Electoral Commission.

    Critics say the changes do not go far enough, and that the commission would still be heavily weighted in favor of the government and ruling party. There is no guarantee for the presence of independent foreign election observers.

    Mugabe insists only visiting observers from "friendly progressive nations" will be permitted to monitor polling, effectively excluding monitors from former colonial power Britain, the European Union or the United States.

    The Herald said the new laws went into effect Jan. 11, though the news was released only on Saturday.

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