Failed State of the Press: Zimbabwe's Battle against Journalism Continues

By Meldrum, Andrew | Harvard International Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Failed State of the Press: Zimbabwe's Battle against Journalism Continues


Meldrum, Andrew, Harvard International Review


Printing presses destroyed by massive bombs. Five newspapers outlawed and closed down. Scores of journalists jailed on spurious charges. Editors, reporters, photographers, and videographers beaten, tortured, and murdered. Laws that give the state a monopoly on all radio and television broadcasting. Monitoring of personal email use. These are all tactics used by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's regime to censor the free flow of information in the southern African country. According to rankings by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Zimbabwe is one of the most highly restrictive countries against the press in the world.

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Since 2000, when a new opposition challenged Mugabe, he has worked to muzzle the press. He did not mind when the press concentrated on his seizures of white-owned farms because he wanted the world to view him as the radical African leader who rid his country of white farmers, a vestige of colonialism. But Mugabe did not want the press to report that he was using systematic state torture and violence against blacks opposed to his rule.

My Time in Zimbabwe

As a foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe, I experienced Mugabe's oppression of the press. When I uncovered human rights abuses against black Zimbabweans, Mugabe and the state media labeled me a "terrorist." I was knocked unconscious by one of Mugabe's "war vets" who hit my head with a rock. In May 2002, I was jailed for two days and charged with "publishing a falsehood," a crime that carried a two-year jail sentence. My lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, defended me brilliantly, and I was acquitted. I continued reporting in Zimbabwe until May 2003 when I was abducted by state agents, held captive with a hood over my head, and forced onto a plane that flew me out of the country.

I was the last resident foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe. Since then, foreign journalists have had to sneak into the country as tourists and report undercover. Several have been caught by authorities, including New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak, who spent several days in jail in 2007. He also stood trial and was acquitted thanks to Mtetwa.

Beatrice Mtetwa is one of the outstanding heroes of the battle to keep a shred of the free press alive in Zimbabwe. She has defended several journalists, both foreign and Zimbabwean, as well as many more opposition supporters and ordinary Zimbabweans. Though she has been beaten twice by police, nothing has deterred her from crusading for the rule of law. Mtetwa has also represented the handful of courageous Zimbabwean journalists who continue to write for the international media, including the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The Times of London, and The Telegraph.

Visitors to Zimbabwe are struck by how state newspapers, television, and radio spew forth pro-Mugabe propaganda. Many Zimbabweans complain that no matter how hard they try to ignore the constant stream of state diatribes, it still gets to them. In 2003, the Mugabe government shut down the country's most widely circulated newspaper, the Daily News. Now most news comes from state-owned government mouthpieces that spout virulent rhetoric. Media monitoring groups and the European Union have blamed this government propaganda for encouraging violence against supporters of opposition groups.

Two fiercely independent weekly newspapers have managed to keep publishing in Zimbabwe. Trevor Neube's The Independent and The Standard publish on Fridays and Sundays, respectively. They directly contradict government propaganda, report on abuses, and uncover corruption scandals. Their journalists have spent many nights in jail, but they remain determined to continue. The Zimbabwean state holds a monopoly on all television and radio broadcasts, and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation competes with the state newspapers for the shrillest pro-government coverage.

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