Human Rights Watch Dismayed At Lack of Media Reforms In Zimbabwe

It said other reforms such as constitutional, electoral, and security improvements must be done within a specific time frame.

“The transitional government should guarantee, protect, and promote fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, in accordance with its domestic and international legal obligations,” HRW said in a report released on Tuesday.

“The power-sharing government needs to do just that – share power,” Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch said. “Any assessment of the power-sharing government that does not address its record on human rights reforms is at best shoddy, and at worst complicit, in the government’s failed promises.”

HRW said it was saddening to noted that Zimbabwe’s power-sharing government had not carried out critical media reforms as promised under the GPA.

In the 26-page report, “Sleight of Hand: Repression of the Media and the Illusion of Reform in Zimbabwe,” HRW said Zanu (PF) was still on to power in the coalition government forged with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

It said Zanu (PF) promoted political propaganda and restricted independent reporting through repressive laws that remain unchanged. The party was also retaining control of security forces and key resources.

“The Global Political Agreement (GPA) promised reforms that would guarantee transparency and promote free, fair, and credible elections,” said Gagnon. “But these have turned out to be empty promises. The power-sharing government is taking no serious steps toward reform.”

“The new government has not reformed media-related laws, as promised, and blocks free expression through senior officials aligned to Zanu (PF) and partisan state security agents. In the past year, not one independent television or radio station has received a license to operate,”  the report noted.

As a result, journalists were effectively unable to report on significant political and economic developments, depriving Zimbabweans of independent sources of information. State-controlled print and electronic media only dispensed Zanu (PF) approved messages.

Under the new government, at least 15 journalists have been harassed, arbitrarily arrested, or assaulted by Zimbabwe’s state security forces. For instance, Anderson Manyere, a freelance photojournalist, has been arbitrarily detained three times since early 2010. On January 18, police arrested and detained him for two hours for filming a protest march in Harare by Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). He was released without charge. On another occasion, Zanu (PF) youth unlawfully detained Manyere for filming their protest against international sanctions on the party’s leadership. The youth handed Manyere over to state security agents, who forced him to delete all footage in his camera before they released him.

HRW also documented the case of Stanley Kwenda, a journalist who was forced to flee the country on January 16 following alleged death threats from a senior police officer. Kwenda had reported in The Zimbabwean newspaper that the officer had barred Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC from visiting police stations across the country.

Kwenda said: “The police officer hurled insults and threats at me over the phone, saying, ‘Kwenda, you are to die, you will not last the weekend.’ He said I would be dead before my fellow congregants at my church had said their prayers the following Sunday. I was so afraid that I was left trembling. I realized I had no protection in Zimbabwe and my only option was to flee the country.”

President Robert Mugabe of Zanu (PF) has already begun to speak publicly about new elections in 2011.

“Without structural and institutional reforms, Zimbabweans risk a repeat of the horrific, state-sponsored violence of 2008, when more than 160 people were killed after Zanu (PF) mobilised to prevent an MDC victory,” said HRW.

“The new government has made a few superficial reforms, but these have resulted in little meaningful improvement for those who wish to express independent political views or to criticise official policy. At least five major pieces of legislation remain on the books that are used to target and silence journalists.”

For instance, the Broadcasting Services Act allows for private broadcasting and provides for the issuance of licenses, but the application procedures are so complex and stringent that no licenses have been issued other than to the government-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC).

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act prohibits the full-time employment of unaccredited journalists by news agencies and the mass media. The Public Order and Security Act criminalises “publishing or communicating statements prejudicial to the State” and prohibits “undermining authority of, or insulting the President.” The phrase has been interpreted broadly to prosecute critics of the president, his government, and his policies.