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Society Denounces Zimbabwe’s Violence Against Journalists


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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
2/23/2001


Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ President, 937/225-2323 or rmarcano@spj.org; John Hopkins, SPJ International Journalism Committee chairman, 305/376-3564 or JDH-Miami@att.net

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists is calling for Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to stop a growing campaign against journalists and other independent voices in the African nation.

"It can cost you liberty or life to speak the truth in Zimbabwe today. The threat is especially real to journalists," said John Hopkins, SPJ International Journalism Committee chairman and copy editor for The Miami Herald. "I hope that news writers and editors everywhere pay attention to what is happening, and not let independent reporting be silenced — certainly not without protest and not without showing all the world what is going on."

Several recent acts of violence and intimidation have resulted from published work that countered the views of the Mugabe regime.

  • Information Minister Jonathan Moyo decreed last week that all 14 foreign correspondents in Harare must return home and reapply for accreditation, which will be issued only if their employers prove no Zimbabwean can do the job. Local journalists also must get new credentials.
  • Threatening gangs have harassed non-government daily and weekly newspapers. In Harare, three land mines were planted and wrecked the Daily News’ printing presses.
  • Last weekend, BBC’s Joseph Winter and Mercedes Sayagues of South Africa’s weekly Mail & Guardian were ordered to leave the country right away. Government agents reinforced this message by trying to break in to Winter’s residence at 1:40 a.m. Sunday. Winter, his wife and his daughter took refuge at the British High Commission and then fled to South Africa.
  • Journalists visiting the country are being issued accreditation for only five days, instead of the usual four-week passes.SPJ President Ray Marcano, assistant managing editor for production of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, recently sent a letter to Mugabe asking the leader to renounce the violence against journalists and embrace a free and vigorous press that the Zimbabwean people deserve as citizens of an independent nation.

"Mr. President, nobody ever said it was simple or convenient to run a country where the press is free," wrote Marcano in a letter. "It does strengthen a country, though, when its people can discuss openly how their affairs are arranged and the events that shape their lives. … The people of Zimbabwe deserve that precious freedom, and journalists in that country should be free to report without the threat of reprisal."

Mugabe began his violent campaign against foreign journalists after his political party’s referendum was defeated last February — a first for the party. The defeat was followed by a June election in which Mugabe’s party won just 62 seats to the opposition’s 58. He has ruled the country since 1980, when Zimbabwe won independence from Great Britain.

"Unfortunately, the situation for journalists in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate rapidly," Marcano said. "An assault on the people who provide information is an assault on the freedom of the Zimbabwe people, who depend on press reports for an unbiased review of what’s happening in their country. We call on President Mugabe to use his immense powers to immediately stop the oppression of journalists in his country."

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Feb. 15, 2001
His Excellency, Executive President Robert Mugabe
Office of the President
Private Bag 7700, Causeway
Harare
Zimbabwe

Dear President Mugabe:

It saddens and alarms me to read what has been happening to my fellow journalists in Zimbabwe. Surely the violence and intimidation that have been used against them have no place in a country embarked upon reform. As you work to build your country and secure its place among the nations of the world, I should think you would embrace the kind of free and vigorous press that the people of a self-governing nation expect and deserve.

Yet from all appearances, there are some within your government who have condoned — and even encouraged — the intimidation of independent writers and editors, as well as the violence employed against the Daily News and other news media.

On behalf of the largest and most inclusive association of journalists in the United States, I encourage you to renounce the use of violence against the media and to take immediate, visible steps to assure that the people who bombed the Daily News and those who threatened the Observer and other papers are caught and held accountable. The lack of such action already is being noticed around the world.

Mr. President, nobody ever said it was simple or convenient to run a country where the press is free. It does strengthen a country, though, when its people can discuss openly how their affairs are arranged and the events that shape their lives. And for hundreds of years now, patriots on every continent have claimed and defended their right to speak and publish freely. The people of Zimbabwe deserve that precious freedom, and journalists in that country should be free to report without the threat of reprisal.

Thank you very much for your attention to this matter, Mr. President.

Respectfully yours,

Ray Marcano
Board President
Society of Professional Journalists



Zimbabwe background — 19 Feb. 2001

  • Journalists, judges, and other independent voices in Zimbabwe are being threatened by a growing campaign of violence and intimidation. The targets are anyone who has strayed — or might do so — from the views of the Mugabe regime.
  • Information Minister Jonathan Moyo decreed last week that all 14 foreign correspondents in Harare must return home and reapply for accreditation, which will be issued only if their employers prove no Zimbabwean can do the job. Local journalists also must get new credentials. Last weekend, the BBC’s Joseph Winter and Mercedes Sayagues, of South Africa’s weekly Mail & Guardian, were ordered to leave right away. As if to reinforce the "get out" message, a half-dozen government agents tried to break into Winter’s flat at 1:40 a.m. Sunday. He and his wife and small daughter took refuge at the British High Commission, then fled to South Africa.
  • Menacing bands calling themselves "war veterans," ostensibly the men who fought for independence from Great Britain 25 years ago, have been harassing the non-government daily and weekly newspapers. The threats they made during their Jan. 23 march against the Daily News in Harare were made chillingly credible five days later, when someone planted three land mines that wrecked the paper’s printing press. The next weekend, journalists from the local media started to assemble in protest, but the police sent them packing.
  • Office-holders from a fast-growing opposition party, the MDC, have been beaten, threatened and arrested. Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay was browbeaten into announcing retirement this month after the Supreme Court began hearing opposition challenges to some of the June 2000 election results and ordered the return of 2,500 commercial farms that the "veterans" had seized from their European owners. The justice minister told Gubbay he could not protect him from the veterans’ gangs, which had been threatening the judges’ lives. So far, the other justices have resisted Gubbay’s pressure.
  • President Robert Mugabe is 77 years old this week. He has presided since the end of all-white rule in the former Southern Rhodesia in 1980. A referendum last February was his Zanu-PF party’s first election defeat ever, and in the
  • Parliament elections in June the party only managed to win 62 seats to the opposition’s 58. Since Mugabe controls 20 appointed seats, however, his legislative backing is larger than the election numbers show.
  • A presidential election is scheduled for next year. There is talk that Mugabe may move the date up, perhaps to this September, before a tightening economy requires him to bid for the votes of a nation that saw food riots in 1998. Grain production reportedly plummeted after so many commercial farmers were displaced last year, and meanwhile the country is months behind on paying for Kuwaiti oil and South African electricity. This country of 12 million residents has been spending upward of $3 million a month (its official report) to keep an 11,000-man army in the mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire), where rebels are backed by Uganda and Rwanda.

Compiled from the sources below by John Hopkins, SPJ International Journalism Committee chairman:

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