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Mugabe's Latest Victim

September 27, 2003

Zimbabwe is broke and its people go jobless and hungry. President Robert Mugabe ought to have his hands too full to pick on his nation's press, but this dictator has found the time to corrupt the legal system in a successful effort to shut down the country's only independent daily newspaper.

Mugabe is of course dead wrong in this matter. And that's what Thabo Mbeki, the leader of neighboring South Africa, needs to tell him. Mbeki should remind Mugabe of the profound role an unfettered international press played in eliminating heinous apartheid in South Africa.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe's regime continues to act as badly as the white despots once did in South Africa. The regime ordered the arrest Monday of five of the nine directors of the Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent paper, after charging them with publishing without a license in violation of an outrageous law licensing journalists and media and requiring their government registration. These charges and arrests occurred a day after the paper was declared illegal by Zimbabwe's highest court because it had not registered.

"The government's attempt to cover its actions with a veneer of legality becomes more ludicrous each day," said Ann Cooper, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The events in Zimbabwe, she said, amount to "an out-and-out assault on a source of independent news."

Police officers seized all the newspaper's equipment; later they flouted a court order to return it. With no other alternative, the Daily News then tried to register with the government, which refused to let it do so. The paper's owners now face two-year prison terms or fines or both for operating without a license.

Mugabe, who for years has ruled harshly, wasn't dissuaded from his previous, grievous conduct by the United States, Europe or anyone else. Mbeki, however, can sway him, partly because their relationship dates to the days when Mugabe aided the South Africans, including Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, in throwing off racist repression. In addition, Zimbabwe has become almost totally dependent on South Africa, now a regional power. Unemployment runs at 80% in once-wealthy Zimbabwe, inflation at 228%. Mugabe's regime recently had to confess it even lacked the cash to cover the cost of printing new money.

Given how it totters already, maybe Mugabe's government couldn't take the heat of full, fair news coverage. But Mbeki can remind Mugabe that regimes that don't serve their people and that harm them -- as South Africa's did until media-fed world revulsion undid apartheid -- well, their wrongs deserve airing and they get relegated to history's garbage heap.

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