Media caught in the political vice

As the gap between the fierce political rivalries of Zimbabwe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) narrows, there are fears that the independent media will be squeezed even more.

In the past decade, while Zimbabwe lurched from one political crisis to another and the economy went into freefall, the independent media were lambasted by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF government for their often critical views, and subjected to increasingly repressive media laws.

In January 2009 the Media and Information Commission (MIC), which is staffed by members of ZANU-PF, began targeting the remaining pockets of independent media houses and journalists by instituting huge accreditation fees.

The MIC is meant to be defunct but its replacement body, the Zimbabwe Media Commission - to be comprised of parliamentary appointees - has yet to be constituted in terms of a 2008 amendment of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).

The new fee structures mean local journalists employed by foreign media houses have to pay a US$1,000 application fee, with a further US$3,000 annual accreditation fee.

Temporary accreditation for visiting journalists is pegged at US$500, while journalists from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will pay a "complimentary" accreditation fee of US$150, and journalists from the rest of Africa will be charged US$200.

All foreign news agencies, including those from Africa, are required to pay a non-refundable US$10,000 application fee and, if their application is successful, a further annual fee of US$20,000 to operate in Zimbabwe, as well as a US$2,000 "complimentary administration fee".

Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, said the new fees were a result of the president being misquoted by foreign news agencies in December 2008, after he declared the cholera crisis over.

During a live one-hour television broadcast, the 85-year-old president said the disease had been "arrested", and "So now that there is no cholera, there is no cause for war anymore. We need doctors, not soldiers."

His comments came at a time when there were widespread calls for a military intervention to depose Mugabe, and the cholera death toll since August 2008 had climbed to more than 700, with over 16,000 cases reported.

According to the UN, up to 4 February 2009, 3,350 people had died from cholera and 67,567 cases had been reported, including 1,828 new cases reported in the previous 24-hour period.

Zimbabwe's economic meltdown has not left the media houses untouched, and journalists number among the 94 percent of people unemployed, making it difficult to freelance, as few can afford the fees, or find work with foreign news agencies.

The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), a body representing the welfare and rights of Zimbabwean reporters, condemned the new fee structure as a censorship ploy. "The present government is totally against a free and vibrant press," ZUJ president Matthew Takaona told IRIN.

Censorship strategy

"We know that its strategy, after closing down most local newspapers, radio and television stations that provided an alternative source of information, is to make it difficult for any critical foreign media to operate from Zimbabwe," he said.

"We want the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act to be repealed. We are also demanding that the MDC and ZANU-PF stop proceeding with sections of the Constitutional Amendment Number 19, which seek to establish statutory regulation of the media through the proposed Media Commission ... Any amendments to the media law must involve media practitioners," Takaona said.

MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa told IRIN: "the MDC is strongly against these punitive regulations, which are an attempt by the regime to silence the remaining small but vibrant media in the country. Since the enactment of AIPPA in 2002, the ZANU-PF government has made every effort to make it difficult for journalists to operate in country - they have bombed printing presses and closed five newspapers."

Chamisa said the MIC was an "illegal body", and was not entitled to introduce registration and accreditation fees, and the move had illustrated a "lack of sincerity" by ZANU-PF in adhering to the terms of the new unity government.

"The exorbitant fees being touted means that press freedom has been dollarised, much to the detriment of ordinary Zimbabweans, who are starved of information," he said.

''The exorbitant fees  being touted means that press freedom has been dollarised, much to the detriment of ordinary Zimbabweans, who are starved of information''

The MDC was party to the AIPPA amendments, but its policy documents state that it prefers a self-regulated media industry. Journalists were uncomfortable that neither ZANU-PF nor the MDC had consulted media stakeholders.

Simba Rushwaya, a journalist based in the capital, Harare, said a settlement among politicians would not automatically translate into an open media environment.

"That is why, if you examine the power-sharing deal, [you will find that] other than the right political noises about freedom of expression and processing applications for registration, it is very vague on self-regulation and freedom of the media, which should make journalists very vigilant."