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Zimbabwe: Elections not free and fair without media freedom

2 April 2008 at 00:18 | 723 views

With Zimbabwe’s presidential and parliamentary election results slowly
trickling in, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Human Rights
Watch and other IFEX members say that the prevailing media and free
expression environment have made a free and fair election impossible.

"Critical and alternative voices have not been allowed the freedom to
operate and be heard," says MISA. "It is MISA’s position that any electoral
process characterised by biased and unethical reporting, intimidation and
legal gags placed on the media cannot pass the test of being free and fair
no matter that the actual voting process might seem free and fair."

According to MISA, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to
Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Zimbabwean government used journalist
accreditation laws to prevent several major media groups, such as the BBC,
CNN and South Africa’s E-TV, from covering the general elections on 29
March, despite signing on to regional and international covenants that
guarantee a free press.

Just days before the poll, in which longstanding President Robert Mugabe is
running for re-election, a presidential spokesperson announced that the
government was being mindful of "attempts to turn journalists into
observers or to smuggle in uninvited observers and security personnel from
hostile countries under the guise of the media."

Zimbabwean journalists were also banned from covering the elections under
Zimbabwe’s stringent accreditation laws. They include freelance journalist
Hopewell Chin’ono, winner of this year’s Desmond Tutu Leadership
Fellowship.

CPJ reported that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission planned to station
police officers 100 metres from polling areas during the elections,
preventing access for all unaccredited journalists.

Coverage in the state media has also been heavily biased in favour of the
ruling party. Human Rights Watch documented how opposition candidates found
it almost impossible to access Zimbabwe’s state-controlled radio stations
and television. For the entire month of February, for example, state-owned
television devoted five times more coverage to Mugabe and his ruling party
ZANU-PF than all the opposition parties combined.

Hate messages targeting the opposition have intensified, and in some cases
led to violence against opposition supporters, reports MISA. Statements
from the security forces threatening citizens and the opposition were
amplified by the state media to instil fear in ordinary Zimbabweans.

"The 29 March poll has again been marred by authoritarian measures and
irregularities," says RSF. "The international observers accepted by the
government will not be able to pretend that the circumstances surrounding
the elections were fine. It is clear that press freedom, at least, has not
been guaranteed, which is a serious flaw for elections that are supposed to
be democratic."

Discontent with Mugabe’s rule has grown around the country. Inflation is
the highest in the world at more than 100,000 percent and people suffer
crippling shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel and medicine.

At the time of writing, independent observers say trends support opposition
leader Morgan Tsvangirai winning the largest number of votes in the
presidential race, but not enough to avoid a runoff. The delay in official
results has reinforced suspicions that the count is being rigged.

Source: IFEX, Canada.

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