|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
thoughts and prayers are with Zimbabwe |
- may peace, truth and justice prevail.
By Dominic Evans
LONDON (Reuters) - Commonwealth ministers warned Zimbabwe on Thursday it faced suspension from the 54-nation group next month unless it stopped a wave of violent farm occupations and halted media and political intimidation.
The eight-strong Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the group's democracy watchdog, ended two years of hand-wringing by formally putting Zimbabwe on their agenda for action -- the first step to possible suspension.
"The situation in Zimbabwe constitutes a serious and persistent violation of the Commonwealth fundamental political values and the rule of law," CMAG said in a statement.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said it would be "open to CMAG to suspend Zimbabwe from councils of the Commonwealth," which is made up mainly of former British colonies, at its next meeting on January 30.
Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley also said suspension would be "on the table."
President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ruler since independence from Britain 21 years ago, seeks re-election in March.
"It is an illegal and immoral statement which just goes to show the world how desperate Britain has become," Zimbabwe's Information and Publicity Minister Jonathan Moyo said in Harare.
"Britain wants to abuse Commonwealth principles and proceedings to defend Britain's colonial interests in Zimbabwe and defend white minority interests against the democratic interests of Zimbabweans," Moyo told Reuters.
Mugabe, who faces growing international pressure over the violent takeover of white-owned farms, says the redistribution of farmland to landless blacks is a vital step toward redressing colonial-era injustices.
But the United States and the European Union both edged closer this month to imposing sanctions against his government unless he implements a September pledge to halt violence and hold free and fair elections.
Commonwealth ministers expressed deep concern at "continued violence, occupation of property, actions against the freedom and independence of the media and political intimidation."
They also called on Mugabe to allow international monitors into the country to oversee preparations for the vote.
Although CMAG has repeatedly expressed concern at events in Zimbabwe, it has never officially put the country in its sights -- confining action to nations where clear constitutional violations such as military coups have taken place.
Two years ago it suspended Pakistan from the Commonwealth's main forums after President Pervez Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup. Fiji, suspended last June after a coup by self-styled Fijian nationalists, was readmitted on Thursday.
The decision to step up pressure on Zimbabwe appeared to be a victory for Australia, Britain and Canada who have pressed for tougher steps against Mugabe's government, in the face of greater caution from African nations.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose country will host a Commonwealth summit in March that could be overshadowed by the crisis in Zimbabwe, said he was pleased.
"This is a critical moment and it is important the Commonwealth is engaged," he said.
Botswana's Foreign Minister Mompati Merafhe said the Commonwealth was concerned over a range of issues in Zimbabwe.
"The rule of law, perceived intimidation of the press and opposition -- these are areas which people are concerned about and these are areas where progress will be expected," he said.
In the last year, Zimbabwe's embattled independent press has survived intimidation, arrests and even arson.
But human rights groups and journalists warn that the Zimbabwean Government plans to silence the independent media once and for all.
The government has introduced new legislation to ban critical reporting of President Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party in the run-up to presidential elections next March.
The move follows expulsions of foreign news organizations and government accusations that independent and foreign journalists are in league with opposition groups.
In November, an anonymous government spokesman, quoted in the state-owned Herald newspaper, accused journalists who reported on an attack by ruling party militants against whites and opposition officials of aiding the "terrorist" opposition.
As part of its re-election strategy, Zanu-PF is pushing for a 24-hour news radio station, a TV station, eight provincial newspapers and a news agency under a new government media house called New Ziana.
Earlier this year, the government passed legislation effectively banning independent radio stations.
Rural areas have been particularly affected, as radio is the main medium for receiving news there.
To fill this vacuum, a new radio station started broadcasting to Zimbabwe via short-wave and the Internet on 19 December.
Broadcasting each evening in English, SW Radio Africa, says it is independent of any political parties and will provide unbiased news and current affairs programmes.
Until now, the only local airtime available to Mugabe's election rival Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is on Voice of the People, which broadcasts on short-wave from the island of Madagascar.
But most people in rural areas still rely on FM and medium-wave radios and television, where the state retains a monopoly.
Recently approved regulations will place further restrictions on independent journalists.
The Public Order and Security Bill, which bans political rallies and bars newspapers from publishing articles criticizing the president, has been written into law.
Another law banning foreign journalists from working in Zimbabwe is expected to be passed soon.
The proposed Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill disqualifies foreigners from working as journalists, even for foreign media.
In addition to being Zimbabwean citizens, journalists must also hold a journalism degree to qualify for a licence. A new government-appointed media commission will be responsible for granting licences to journalists and supervising the media industry.
The bill makes it a crime for journalists to write for other publications unless they are registered as freelance journalists. Anyone writing unauthorised reports on cabinet meetings will be prosecuted.
Those found guilty of violating the bill will have to pay a fine of up to 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars ($1,875) or be sentenced to two years' imprisonment.
Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary-general Basildon Peta warns that the bill is "the final nail in the coffin of the media".
This year, the journalists' union recorded more than 40 cases of independent reporters being arrested by police or attacked by ruling Zanu-PF militants. Some had reportedly been tortured.
Zimbabwe's most popular newspaper, the independent Daily News, has been the main target.
Its printing press was destroyed in a bomb attack in January, although it continues to publish.
Editor Geoff Nyarota was arrested twice, but charges were quickly dropped.
The authorities expelled three foreign correspondents, and in July barred BBC reporters from the country.
The US Congress has recently passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Bill which offers financial incentives to Zimbabwe to allow fair elections and support a free and independent press.
Mr Mugabe reacted by calling the bill "repugnant, provocative, and indeed a gross violation of international law".
From ZWNEWS, 20 December
As the draconian new Public Order and Security Bill made its way through parliament yesterday, a new and free voice was launched to complement Zimbabwe’s independent media: SW Radio Africa began its service to southern Africa on Wednesday evening. The new station is a long-awaited challenge to the blanket state monopoly of the electronic media in Zimbabwe. It is not, however, the first: Capital Radio had a short-lived existence last year before police stormed its location and confiscated the transmitter. Which is why the new station is not based in Zimbabwe. "We’re in the UK," said a spokesperson for the station, "not by choice, but because there is no alternative. Short wave is not our choice either, but FM is not available to us."
A small group of presenters have left Zimbabwe to set up the station. Their aim is to present a more balanced viewpoint than that available from the government media. It is not an easy task, not least because of the climate of fear that pervades Zimbabwe at present, making people reluctant to be interviewed. Likewise government officials generally refuse to talk to the independent media. "We tried to get the government’s viewpoint on a number of issues today. We failed. To be fair, that wasn’t a refusal to speak to us. It is just that people were unavailable or in meetings. But these days, journalists continually have difficulty getting quotes from government. It is not a ruling party that is used to openly discussing viewpoints and allowing free debate," said the spokesperson.
But the optimism is infectious: "Manic, panic, mayhem - and wonderful," is how the team described the first day on the air. The presenters are Violet Gonda, Tererai Karimakwenda, John Matinde, and Mandisa Mundawarara. Broadcast times are between 6pm and 9pm Zimbabwe time, seven evenings a week. Listeners in Zimbabwe can find the station on short wave in the 49m band at 6145 KHz. Those outside the broadcast area can hear the new station through internet streaming. The SW Radio Africa website is atwww.swradioafrica.com. Listeners’ news and views are encouraged, and can be sent to email@example.com.