By: Angus Shaw, Associated Press Writer
(AP) President Robert Mugabe on Friday signed into law sweeping media controls requiring all journalists to be licensed by the government and imposing severe limits on foreign correspondents working in the country.
In the first major executive decision since disputed presidential elections last weekend, Mugabe formally enacted the Access to Information Act, widely criticized as a draconian attempt to muzzle media criticism of the government. The act was passed by Mugabe’s ruling party in January, but Mugabe delayed signing it into law after his own supporters expressed reservations.
Friday’s notice was unexpected and appeared to show the government’s determination to push through restrictive legislation after Mugabe’s election to another six-year term.
The legislation makes it illegal for journalists to operate without government accreditation. It creates a state-appointed media commission with disciplinary powers to withdraw journalists’ licenses, confiscate equipment, and jail journalists for up to two years. It also restricts visits by foreign journalists and requires specified assignments to be cleared first by Zimbabwe’s embassies in the journalists’ home countries.
Under recently passed security laws already enacted, journalists can be prosecuted for criticizing Mugabe and the government.
State radio on Friday criticized foreign media organizations for alleged bias in their coverage of the presidential election, which was marred by political violence and voting laws weighed in Mugabe’s favor.
Two sets of amendments were made after the parliamentary legal committee declared the original proposals drafted by Information Minister Jonathan Moyo “the most determined assault” on constitutional liberties since independence in 1980.
In the run up to last weekend’s elections, independent reporters in Zimbabwe were harassed, arrested, and threatened by the government and ruling party militants.
The independent Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project, in its weekly report issued Thursday, said the state broadcaster’s election coverage was “grossly biased.” It said in about 14 hours of state television coverage of the presidential campaign, Mugabe received more than 13 hours of air time while the opposition received just over 31 minutes.
“Even this was subverted by ZBC which used the time to attack, denigrate, and discredit the MDC,” the research group said. MDC, the Movement for Democratic Change, is lead by Mugabe opponent Morgan Tsvangirai.
In reports on the poll, several foreign observer missions have noted the disparity in coverage by the dominant state media and condemned the absence of free access to the public media by the opposition and civic groups seen as necessary for fair democratic process.