Mugabe's media clampdown condemned
Zimbabwe's free press has been declared dead after parliament passed a bill essentially gagging independent journalists.
Critical reporting of the government is effectively banned under the proposed law, which requires the signature of President Robert Mugabe.
Britain and the United States, who have been calling for sanctions against Zimbabwe over its human rights record, immediately condemned the move.
The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, which was passed on Thursday ahead of the country's presidential elections next month, makes it illegal for domestic journalists to operate without government accreditation.
Foreign correspondents will only be allowed into the country to cover specific events.
The bill creates a state-appointed commission with disciplinary powers to withdraw licences, confiscate equipment and jail journalists for up to two years.
Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe's minister of information, defended the bill as seeking to foster "meaningful access" to public information and protect privacy.
He told CNN: "This has nothing to do with the free speech and free expression of individuals in the public.
"It has to do with the regulation of an industry, of a media industry, which is driven often by the profit motive or political agenda."
In a reference to Thomas Jefferson's assertion that it was "very, very wrong" to say that, if given a choice, it is better to have newspapers without government, Moyo added: "It is far better to have government without newspapers."
"We defy everything in this (bill). It prevents us from reporting the issues," Basildon Peta, who heads Zimbabwe's union of journalists, told The Associated Press.
"It's a fascist piece of legislation ... with the main purpose of gagging the media."
Iden Weatherell, editor of the Zimbabwean Independent, said: "The purpose of the bill is to silence the media and to make sure the only voice that is heard is President Mugabe's."
David Dadge, editor at the Vienna-based International Press Institute, said: "This is a government that does not believe in independent media.
"It believes it should have itself reflected in the media and only its own thoughts should be reflected in the media. It's a government that does not believe in democracy."
International Press Institute and the French-based Reporters sans Frontieres have both made official complaints to Harare.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "I wholly condemn the passage of these press laws.
"I find it almost impossible to comprehend how free and fair elections can be held in Zimbabwe when such laws have been passed."
Earlier this week, the Commonwealth rejected a British call to suspend Zimbabwe from the 54-nation group.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the Bush administration was working with Britain and other countries on possible joint steps against Zimbabwe.
The European Union said it deplored the Zimbabwe parliament's approval of a tough new media law, but said it would not automatically spark threatened sanctions against Mugabe and his associates.
"We are profoundly disappointed that Zimbabwe's parliament has passed this law, which represents a fundamental attack on media freedom," European Commissioner for External Affairs Chris Patten said in a statement.
Yves Sorokobi, the Africa coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, told AP the bill shows "the complete powerlessness of journalists in this really repressive machine Mugabe has managed to build."
The organisation said it was helping journalists who believed they were in danger to get out of the country.
Independent newspapers have been essential in exposing the country's economic collapse, the wave of political violence by ruling party militants against opposition activists and the violent occupation of white-owned farms by those militants.
In March, Mugabe faces Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose party won nearly half the seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections despite a campaign marred by violence blamed on the ruling party.
The government-controlled media barely covers the opposition. During the 2000 election campaign, 92 percent of the stories were on Mugabe's ruling party, said the Media Monitoring Project tracking coverage in Zimbabwe.
Andrew Moyse, who heads the organisation, said the media bill symbolises that Zimbabwe is "becoming one of the most repressive societies on the continent."
The bill makes "being a journalist impossible," he said.
About 100 reporters and editors work at independent newspapers and agencies in Zimbabwe. There are no independent radio or television stations as efforts to create them have been squashed by Mugabe.
Peta and other independent journalists have said they would risk jail by not registering for the required accreditation.
The government has refused requests from many foreign reporters, including several representing AP, to enter Zimbabwe.
Officials have described previous attempts at regulating the media as efforts to ensure reporters act responsibly.
Zimbabwe media crackdown backed
January 31, 2002
Zimbabwe escapes Commonwealth ban
January 30, 2002
Mugabe to push media bill
January 30, 2002
EU gives Mugabe last chance
January 28, 2002
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