The War on the Media in Zimbabwe

Last night I listened to SW Radio at 18.30 hrs. For those who are not familiar with SW Radio this is a small radio station broadcasting out of London on short and medium wave to Zimbabwe. For many of us the slot from 18.30 to 19.30 hrs has been a lifeline of news about what is happening in Zimbabwe. This is the time when they flight their nightly "Newsreel" programme.

At first I thought there was no signal, but then I was able to pick it up - a faint signal right next to what sounded like a muffled roar. We were able to hear the first 20 minutes or so and then it simply became impossible to make out the voices over what was a continuous stream of noise.

SW is being jammed - very professionally - by transmitters located at the Gweru transmitters of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. I understand the equipment comes from Iran and has just been installed.

This just another example of the war on the media being waged by the Zanu PF led regime in Zimbabwe.

Yesterday the Supreme Court finally handed down its judgment a year after they had sat to consider the banning of the Daily News. The Daily News was established 4 years ago in an effort to open up the newspaper industry and allow greater freedom of expression. It rapidly attracted some of the brightest minds in the industry and was soon outselling its State controlled rivals across the country.

They faced threats of many kinds - vendors were beaten up and the copies of the paper burned. The presses printing the paper were blown up with military explosives on two occasions and the staffs were threatened. An assassination attempt was made on the editor.

Then finally the regime decided that these piecemeal approaches were not sufficient and the Minister of Justice brought out a new draft Bill - the innocuously sounding "Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act." In fact this was simply an Act of Parliament designed to close down any media - electronic or written, which was in any way a threat to the Regime. The Daily News was at the top of that list, as was the local initiators of SW Radio.

SW went on to establish itself outside the country - the Daily News did not have that option. They were soon closed down and have been fighting the new legal restrictions ever since. This fight has cost its sponsors many hundreds of millions of dollars in legal and other costs. Because of their determination the Daily News remains ready to go within 48 hours of being allowed back on the streets.

So when we heard that the SADC States were going to see to it that the elections on the 31st were going to be free and fair - we assumed this meant that the regime here would allow the Daily back on the streets. When it was leaked that the Supreme Court was going to rule in favor of the Daily this reinforced our feelings. But it was not to be - yesterday the Courts ruled that the original banning order was not right and that the Daily News should have been licensed. Then they sent the decision back to the same body that originally banned the Daily News and has just banned another weekly.

The war on the media does not end there - any employee of the State controlled media - 7 newspapers and 4 radio stations and the sole national TV station, who shows any signs of independence or professionalism is immediately fired or worse. These people live in constant fear for their jobs and careers. The weekly Financial Gazette - long a critic of the State was quietly taken over by financial interests close to the ruling Party.

The only other independent weeklies that remained operating are the Standard on Sunday and the Independent on Fridays. These are expensive and have a limited circulation and have been very careful not to step outside the invisible boundaries that mark regime media restrictions.

The regime has threatened Botswana for its perceived support for the independent radio broadcasts that are coming into Zimbabwe. The main ones being SW Radio - now broadcasting on medium wave via a regional facility and the Voice of America Studio 7 broadcasts each evening for one hour in three languages.

The propaganda machine is massive and constant. All media references to the activities of the MDC are negative and hostile. The position of the ruling party is constantly portrayed and all news and current affairs programming is treated as a political campaign tool. Any positive coverage of the MDC - such as the MDC campaign launch, which was covered at the start of this campaign - has an electrifying effect on the country!

Even in the commercial printing industry there has been a campaign to limit MDC activity. The company Daily Print, in Bulawayo was firebombed when it was discovered that they were printing for the MDC. Since then all commercial printers report visits by the CIO and threats that there will be retaliation if they accept work from the MDC.

I do not know how you would interpret this situation? Thabo Mbeki says that this is not an impediment to a free and fair election. I find that an astonishing claim. How does he expect the MDC to address the issues and campaign if they are virtually totally excluded from the media, except in a negative way?

The election on the 31st simply cannot be regarded as being free and fair. It will be a carefully orchestrated display of election fraud and manipulation by a regime that came to power on the back of a global campaign to win one man one vote for Zimbabwe. South Africa and her regional associates will be associated with this exercise and will be to blame if Zimbabwe continues its slide into anarchy and human misery.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 16th March 2005