Security agents in Zimbabwe have charged seven trustees of that country's sole independent news production company, the Voice of the People (VOP), with broadcasting without a license.
Section 27 of the country's Broadcasting Services Act, prohibits possession or use of radio transmission equipment without a license.
If found guilty of contravening the Act, VOP chairman David Masunda, Isabella Matambanadzo, Millicent Phiri, Lawrence Chibwe, Nhlahla Ngwenya, Arnold Tsunga and John Masuku could face up to two years in prison.
VOP staffers produce programs on a variety of community and political issues. The programming is then transmitted via shortwave from overseas. They do not broadcast directly from Zimbabwe.
On Dec. 15, Zimbabwean police and intelligence agents, raided the radio station's offices in Harare; seized computers and files; and arrested and detained three staff members, Nyasha Bosha, Maria Nyanyiwa and Kundai Mungwanda for three days.
The security agents arrived at VOP offices with a search warrant looking for broadcasting and transmission equipment. When staff said that there was no such equipment in the offices, the security agents left and came back with a reworded warrant allowing them to confiscate files, computers and other equipment.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.) reports that no new programs have been aired since the police raid on VOP offices in December.
According to the C.P.J., the December raid closely resembles a similar raid on VOP in July 2002, when security agents searched VOP offices for a transmitter, broadcasting equipment, and other evidence that VOP was violating the Broadcasting Services Act of 2001, which bars stations from broadcasting without a license. The security agents did not find a transmitter but confiscated tapes and files from the office.
In August 2002, three unidentified assailants bombed the radio station's offices.
Ann Cooper, executive director of the C.P.J., described VOP as an important news source and said this latest attack on VOP staffers and trustees as deeply troubling.
"Zimbabwean authorities continue to show an utter intolerance toward anyone challenging the state's monopoly on news and opinion," she said.
In 2004, the C.P.J. named Zimbabwe one of the "World's Worst Places to be a Journalist."
Repressive legislation was used to close the country's only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News, and to detain and harass journalists. In November, parliament passed the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which imposes up to 20 years' imprisonment, heavy fines or both for publishing and communicating "false" information prejudicial to the state. Another measure passed in the same month toughened the already strict Access to Information and Public Privacy Act (A.I.P.P.A.), a 2002 law that criminalized practicing journalism without a license from the state-controlled Media and Information Commission (M.I.C.). The 2004 amendments allow authorities to jail any journalist found working without M.I.C. accreditation for up to two years.
No foreign correspondents reported from Zimbabwe in 2004 after the last remaining one, Andrew Meldrum of the London-based Guardian newspaper, was declared "undesirable" and deported in 2003. Local journalists known to be filing for foreign news organizations have been subjected to frequent harassment — in February 2004, three journalists from the state-owned daily, The Herald, were fired for working for the U.S. government-funded broadcaster, Voice of America.
Security minister, Didymus Mutasa has warned that the "net will soon close in" on more of those journalists the Zimbabwean government believes are threatening national security.
"It is sad to note that there is a crop of journalists who are selling the country to the enemy by writing falsehoods, with the intention of agitating violence in the country.
"They should be warned that the net will soon close in on all those involved in these illegal activities," he said.
Mutasa told the state-owned Manica Post (Jan. 27, 2006) these journalists were "driven by the love for the United States dollars and British pounds, which they were paid by the foreign media houses to peddle lies."
He said even though some of the journalists used pseudonyms "government had since identified them from their closets."
Matthew Nyashanu, spokesman of the Zimbabwean Diaspora Vote Action group, says the onslaught against journalists by President Robert G. Mugabe's government is because the Harare administration is very insecure.
"Anyone trying to inform the international world about the dark side of Mugabe's rule is likely to face the wrath of the ailing regime.
"This is a well calculated strategy to put on hold free flow of information especially the information disseminated by the independent press. This is a perfect fulfillment of P.O.S.A. [the Public Order and Security Act] and A.I.P.P.A. by a regime, which has run out of strategies of both running the economy and dealing with ever growing discontent within the electorate," Nyashanu says.
He maintains the government is hoping to create a vacuum of information in Zimbabwe to make sure that all its inhuman treatment of its citizens remains a secret.
"This is also meant to induce fear in all journalists and human rights activists wishing to square up with the regime but although these arrests may induce fear in the media fraternity, in another way they will make journalists to grow stronger in their quest to expose the wrong activities of this despotic regime.
"The way forward for journalists in Zimbabwe is to keep the pressure on by reporting all the bad things coming from this regime. The journalists should also file stories with international media organizations where possible to make sure that the regime is exposed, for what it is, to the international community," Matthew Nyashanu says.
The Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) secretary for information and publicity, Nelson Chamisa has described the Zimbabwe government's intolerance of media freedom and the continued violation of the rights of Zimbabweans to receive and impart information has reached catastrophic levels.
"The harassment is part of state-terrorism against the private media in this country characterized by the closure of The Daily News, The Weekly Sun, The Daily News on Sunday and The Tribune, leaving thousands of Zimbabweans jobless.
"The ploy is to make Zimbabweans passive consumers of government propaganda churned out by the state-owned media everyday. The ploy is to create a media terrain of government apologists and praise singers as if that alone will save the country from the deepening political and economic crisis," Nelson Chamisa says.
This article was first published on the World Press Review.