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Freedoms curtailed
Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ)
Extracted from Weekly Media Update 2004-39
Monday September 27th – October 3rd 2004

THE repressive effects of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which has been so effectively used to muzzle alternative sources of information, have resulted in the flow and quality of information available to Zimbabweans being seriously compromised.

This was clearly illustrated by the manner in which the government-controlled media either ignored or superficially covered the continuing curtailment of citizens’ rights thereby misinforming most Zimbabweans, who for lack of alternatives, now rely on them for information. It was not surprising therefore that out of the 20 stories on human rights abuses carried in the media during the week, only five of them appeared in the official media - and these were all biased against the victims of the rights violations.

Although the private Press performed better in this regard, their effectiveness in exposing such issues were compromised by the fact that they are mostly weekly niche market sources of information, and as a result, are unable to keep Zimbabweans updated on daily events.

Even though private radio stations, Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa, were able to air almost daily updates of the abuses they too could not effectively fill this information gap due to accessibility difficulties.

Consequently, many Zimbabweans remained ignorant of the circumstances leading to the Women Of Zimbabwe Arise’s (WOZA) demonstration against government’s proposed NGO Bill and their subsequent arrest and detention.

For example, despite the fact that WOZA members had been demonstrating against the NGO Bill for more than a week, there was virtually no news in the mainstream media on the protest, whose main feature was an unprecedented 440 km march from Bulawayo to Harare.

The issue only got prominence after the arrest of protestors, who were on their last lap of the march. Even then, the government media’s coverage of the women’s arrests were prejudiced against them as their stories, as exemplified by ZTV (28/9, 8pm), Radio Zimbabwe (29/9, 6am), Power FM (29/9, 6am and 3/10, 6am) and The Herald (30/9), lacked fairness and balance.

For example, The Herald’s one-off report, buried on page four, ignored the context of the march thereby giving the misleading impression that the women were yet to demonstrate, saying they were arrested "while marching to Harare where they had intended to carry out their illegal demonstration".

The paper and the State broadcaster refused to view the arrests as yet another example of the authorities’ clampdown on dissent. Instead, they quoted the police apparently justifying the arrests, saying the women had "allegedly misled them by claiming to be church members" and their "on-the-spot search" discovered demonstration materials, which included banners and pamphlets.

Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena was cited as saying that the incident "was not the first time WOZA had held an illegal demonstration".

No attempt was made to question the constitutionality of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which together with other repressive laws, have been selectively used by the police to deprive Zimbabweans of their constitutional rights.

Rather, ZTV (28/9, 8pm) and Power FM (29/9, 6am) seemed to find fault with the fact that WOZA was "an opposition-aligned organisation" that was also "associated with well-known activist and critic of the land reform programme, Jenni Williams".

However, they did not explain whether being members of the opposition or critics of government constituted a crime under Zimbabwean laws.

A more coherent coverage of the issue could only be found in the private media. The Daily Mirror (29/9 and 1/10), Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa (1/10), all furnished their audiences with the proper context of the protest against the NGO Bill, largely viewed by observers as a repugnant piece of legislation meant to criminalize the social welfare activities of civic society. Follow-up stories on the arrests of the WOZA activists appeared in The Zimbabwe Independent (1/10) and The Standard (3/10).

Besides providing a background to the WOZA march, Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa also continued to expose the unjustified arrests of the activists following their discharge by the courts because they had no case to answer.

SW Radio Africa (1/10) quoted the women’s lawyer, Andrew Makoni, saying that although the police charged his clients for "possibly disturbing the peace under POSA", the charge could not be sustained because the court could not find any evidence on the use of force by the women during their march.

And unlike the government media, the station (29/9) cited the International Bar Association, individual commentators and "NGOs representing the interests of the legal profession worldwide" as having "condemned" the police’s abuse and treatment of WOZA activists.

For example, the station quoted lawyer Gugulethu Moyo comparing the protesters’ ordeal with the treatment meted out to many other Zimbabweans who dared speak out against government. As a result, she said, there had been many innocent civilians who had been arrested and released without charge by the police after being interrogated and assaulted, while the police, in turn, rake in millions of dollars from admission-of-guilt fines by people who have not committed any crime.

Said Moyo: "What we are most concerned about is the use or abuse of police powers to stifle and attack people’s rights…"

Moyo argued that this abuse was more defined by the way the police punished people they know they cannot secure conviction in the courts by ensuring that they detained them in police custody for maximum periods.

The plight of WOZA activists was not the only focus of the independent media. They also covered various other rights abuses including alleged ZANU PF harassment of MDC members in Bindura, Bulawayo and Manicaland, as reported by SW Radio Africa (27/9, 30/9 and 1/10) and The Standard; and the police’s arrest of four members of the Institute of Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), The Zimbabwe Independent (1/10).

The four IDASA members, who the Independent reported as having been arrested for allegedly facilitating an inter-denominational meeting that was not "cleared by the police", were however later released without charge.

The government media turned a blind eye to these issues, including a National Constitutional Assembly demonstration against the controversial NGO Bill. The event was only highlighted by SW Radio Africa and Studio 7 (27/9) and The Daily Mirror (28/9).

Besides the government’s use of POSA to crush dissent, The Independent also exposed its continued use of the equally repressive AIPPA to try to gag the remaining alternative sources of news.

It reported that barely a week after its reporters had been arrested on charges of violating AIPPA, the police had also summoned the editor of its sister paper, The Standard, to answer charges arising from a story it published last February alleging that Pastor Admire Kasi had a license to sell beer.

The Standard was also ordered by the government-appointed Media and Information Commission (MIC) to surrender the negative of an "extremely mischievous" photo of President Mugabe hitching up his trousers at the Harare Agricultural Show and which the paper published on its front page at the end of August.

The Independent cited MIC as claiming that it had received "numerous" complaints about the photo, including one from Department of Information, which complained that the picture represented a "deliberate denigration of the highest office", which was in line with the paper’s "editorial disposition that is underpinned by an anti-Zimbabwe and anti-Mugabe orientation".

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