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Zimbabwe's Muzzle on Independent Media Must Be Removed

September 09, 2002|ANNA HUSARSKA

The Harare studios of the only Zimbabwean privately owned radio station, Voice of the People, were destroyed Aug. 29 by an explosion. The police say the perpetrators of the crime, in which there were no casualties, are unknown but that they will be found and punished.

Are we to assume that those who act against the independent media in Zimbabwe will be finally brought to justice? Well, so says the minister of home affairs, Comrade Kembo Mohadi, who, according to the government mouthpiece, the Herald, announced that "no stone would be left unturned" in the search for "these terrorists trying to induce fear into this nation."

The turning of the stones was probably delayed, though, because Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who has imposed laws limiting freedom of expression, was in Johannesburg at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, as was his minister of information, Jonathan Moyo, known for his stated hatred of independent journalists.

The attack against the Voice of the People is the fourth against an independent news outfit in the last three years: In 2000, 2001 and 2002 the offices and printing house of the privately owned Daily News newspaper were bombed. It's not known who carried out the newspaper explosions.

The VOP's premises were raided in July by members of the police who, armed with a search warrant, confiscated files and 133 tapes. They said they were looking for a transmitter.

There was no transmitter because the VOP does not transmit; it only prepares programs (two hours daily, in the two local languages, Shona and Ndebele) and sends them out of the country. Then they are broadcast from Radio Netherlands' transmitter in Madagascar.

I learned about this from one of the VOP's journalists, whom I met last year in Harare, the capital. She wanted to hear about the experiences of independent media in other dictatorial countries in order to improve the operation of the VOP. She was interested in the clandestine Radio Solidarity, which broadcast in Poland when the country was under martial law, but after listening to my explanations she said with regret: "We could not do that; this would be illegal here. We need to do things in a legal way. Otherwise we put our security at risk."

That "security" is now smoldering in the ruins of a small white building in the Milton Park suburb of Harare.

With its programming about human rights, about AIDS and about social conflicts, the VOP was a thorn in the government's side, which in published reports has called it "nothing short of a criminal and terrorist group." In rural areas where the Daily News and the English-language weeklies are not available or are not understood, the VOP was the only independent source of information. The raid in July was a warning. The Aug. 29 attack means there is no room for a free radio in Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Without waiting for his new, self-described "war cabinet" to celebrate getting its adversary off the air, the outside world should prevent the VOP from going silent. There are a few days' worth of broadcasts accumulated and some rebroadcasts are planned, but the losses--virtually everything--must be replaced.

When the other declared enemy of the free media, Slobodan Milosevic, waged a war against his own journalists, the victims found immediate support from abroad. Sarajevo's daily Oslobodjenje was given newsprint even while its offices were being shelled. Belgrade's radio B-92 was carried by other broadcasters when its offices were taken over. The Banja Luka daily in Bosnia, Nezavisne Novine, was offered grants after its editor lost both legs to a car bomb. And the Pristina daily Koha Ditore was helped to temporarily resettle in Macedonia after its offices and equipment were destroyed in Kosovo. Now all those media are thriving in their respective countries, and Milosevic is answering for his deeds in The Hague.

If independent media are not helped to stand up to the dictator, Zimbabweans will be left with only government-sanctioned mouthpieces to read, watch and listen to.

Condemning Zimbabweans to such propaganda would have long-term effects on the prospects of the country's return to democracy.

*

Anna Husarska is a political analyst and writer.

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