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Bad laws and the media
Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ)
Extracted from Weekly Media Update 2004-35
Monday August 30th – Sunday September 5th 2004

THE strangling of alternative sources of information through repressive media laws has resulted in most Zimbabweans being obliged to rely on government-controlled media for information. As a result, they remain ill informed about the continued erosion of their constitutionally guaranteed rights. The laws, which have since seen the forced closure of three privately owned newspapers, have not only denied Zimbabweans the right of choice, but have also severely compromised the flow and quality of news the few remaining alternative sources of information are able to provide.

This information gap is worsened by the highly partisan manner in which the government media, which has an unsurpassed combined reach to the nation’s population, cover critical national developments. Their coverage of the Non-Governmental Organisations Bill, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA)’s protest against the Bill and the violent eviction of Porta Farm settlers clearly illustrates this point. They did not provide fair or accurate accounts of these issues, merely siding with the authorities. For example, they overlooked the vague and unconstitutional nature of the NGO Bill, choosing instead to peddle and magnify the authorities’ assertions that the proposed law is a justifiable instrument to rein in rebellious non-governmental organisations colluding with the West to effect regime change in the country.

It is no wonder that these media completely ignored the NCA demonstration against the Bill and its long-standing demands for a new constitution. The private media however, was categorical in condemning the Bill. They quoted both local and regional civic organisations pointing out that, contrary to government claims, the Bill was yet another instrument calculated to further strip Zimbabweans of their civic liberties.

But the government media suffocated these opinions. For example, none of the 12 stories carried by ZBC on the Bill gave any meaningful attention to alternative voices. Instead, they were all pro-government campaigns on the purported virtues of the Bill, which they claimed, was to "help protect Zimbabwe’s sovereignty from deviant organisations"who were being used by " Britain and its allies", ZTV (30/8, 6pm) and The Herald (1/9).

To further justify this contentious Bill, the stories then used mostly baseless accusations against those targeted by the Bill as exemplified by ZTV (30/8,8pm), The Herald (31/8 and 1/9) and The Sunday Mail (5/9). One such unverified claim was made by ZANU PF MP Joram Gumbo whom ZTV (30/8, pm) quoted as telling Parliament that the need to legally empower government to police the activities of NGOs could not be greater as he had "witnessed food bags with messages, "Vote for MDC", being doled out to needy communities in his constituency by some NGOs.

Similarly, The Sunday Mail (5/9)’s African Focus column, written by Tafataona Mahoso, claimed that the US and UK propaganda directed against "ZANU PF and government of Zimbabwe" was being "smuggled through the churches" with the "short term purpose" of preventing "Christians from voting for Zanu PF" in next year’s elections.

This determination by the government media to whip public opinion into line with that of government resulted in them deliberately choking off alternative views on the matter. ZTV (30/8,8pm) for instance smothered MDC MP Thoko Khupe’ s concerns that government’s plans to legislate the Bill "came at a wrong time in terms of the economy as we rely much on these donors for basic needs of our communities". Instead, its reporter, Reuben Barwe, lashed out at the perceived evils of the NGOs, including claiming, misleadingly, that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had confirmed in his country’s Parliament that besides the MDC, his government was also working with "NGOs to achieve regime change" inthe country.

It was this blatant attempt by the government media to justify the systematic erosion of the citizenry’s rights through bad laws that saw them turn a blind eye to the NCA demonstration against the NGOs Bill and the manner in which the police crushed it.

This only appeared in the private media. They depicted the heavy-handed way in which the police blocked the demonstration and resulted in the arrest of more than 30 activists. The law enforcement agency had reportedly refused to grant the organisation permission to hold the marches. In fact, SW Radio Africa (1/9) exposed the police’s determination to frustrate the demo before it even began. It quoted NCA chairman Lovemore Madhuku saying that of those arrested, "nearly half of them were picked up from the organisation’s offices in Eastlea before the demonstration had started." And because the police would not allow the NCA to exercise its democratic right to demonstrate peacefully against the NGO Bill, the organisation was only able to hand a petition to the South African embassy in Harare asking their government "for help in pressuring Harare to abandon the legislation", Studio 7 (1/9). The organisation told the station that the Bill was "a piece of madness in which the government seeks to take away people’ s rights and freedoms" adding that they hoped President Mugabe will also "revoke oppressive laws like AIPPA and POSA as well if approached by SADC members."

Other commentators quoted by private radio stations concurred. SW Radio Africa (30/8) for example reported the local Catholic Church as planning to meet President Mugabe and try to persuade him to drop the Bill because as Studio 7 (1/9) noted, the proposed law had "caused an outcry especially among churches who say their humanitarian work that include feeding schemes will be curtailed." The following day Studio 7 reported that the South African Non-Governmental Council (SANGCO) had also expressed its disapproval of the Bill.

Zimbabwe Election Support Network’s Reginald Matchaba-Hove was also quoted saying the planned legislation would affect the conduct of next year’s elections. He said: "…the Bill will impact negatively on the participation of civil society and other democratic forces in the forthcoming elections…if the Bill is passed as it is, it will nullify a lot of the important additions which may have come through the proposed electoral reform." Matchaba-Hove’s concerns seemed to validate some of the reasons the MDC gave for its conditional boycott of future elections. But the government media still refused to view the opposition’s concerns as legitimate. Instead, they continued to vilify the MDC for its election boycott stance (Power FM, 30/8, 8pm; ZTV, 3/9, 8pm; Radio Zimbabwe 3/9, 8pm; and the Chronicle (3/9).

Interestingly, some of the government media’s blinkered journalism seemed to have rubbed off onto The Financial Gazette (2/9). The private weekly ran a vitriolic, speculative and poorly informed comment on the MDC’s withdrawal from the country’s elections. Describing the opposition’s move as indicative of the "spoilt brat mentality" of the party, the paper claimed that the MDC’s decision exposed "the opposition party’s birthmark of Zimbabwe politics – intolerance and hatred for compromise." Conveniently ignoring contents of the recently adopted SADC protocol on elections, the comment questioned why the MDC was seemingly preoccupied with the adoption of the SADC Charter and "non-committal on the need for a new constitution, freedom of the press, the accountability of executive power to legislative power and the permission to form trade unions without hindrance among others".

Notably, documented evidence shows that the MDC’s electoral demands encompass these issues. Besides, the SADC Charter also deals with almost all of them. The paper’s CZ’s Notebook column also berated the MDC being "founded on the basis of foolishness", because its creators had "nothing in common at all" and their "nexus" was hatred for President Mugabe.

But as the paper and the government media castigated the MDC for demanding that government restores the civic and political liberties of the nation, other private media were questioning government’s commitment to the rule of law after it disobeyed a High Court Order barring it from evicting Porta Farm residents. SW Radio Africa (2/9), TheDailyMirror, ZimbabweIndependent (3/9) and Standard reported on the development. In addition, the Independent and Standard also revealed that the police had arrested two human rights activists who had gone to assess the situation at the farm, for allegedly mobilising the settlers to resist government orders to vacate the farm. The government media censored this aspect in their sanitised reports on the Porta Farm debacle.

Meanwhile, the government media’s spirited efforts to gloss over the repression of the citizenry that the private media have continued to expose manifested itself in a blasphemous opinion piece in The Herald (1/9). The article, written by Owen Matamisa, claimed that President Mugabe was "on the throne by divine appointment" and that criticising him "will not yield results". Matamisa then dismissed the essence of elections and democracy in the country saying, "God is not so much into voting but prayer". He thus called on Zimbabweans to pray for "Prophet" President Mugabe, saying this "will result in God’s blessings sweeping across the land"

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