Journalists Under Siege in Zimbabwe

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With no word on a date for a second round of voting in Zimbabwe's general election election, further evidence is emerging of President Robert Mugabe's program of wholesale repression in advance of a run-off in the presidential race.

Six weeks to the day after Zimbabwe chose opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai over Mugabe by a margin of 47.9% to 43.2% (the remaining votes also went to opposition candidates) and granted his Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) a parliamentary majority, reports continue to emerge of a vicious, nationwide campaign of intimidation, including the beating, torture and killing of opposition supporters by the security forces and their allied militias, and the arrest of hundreds of others. Journalists are also prime targets. Several foreign correspondents have been arrested for working without accreditation in the past few weeks (Zimbabwe routinely denies accreditation to almost all foreign reporters). More precarious is the position of the independent Zimbabwean press, who cannot rely on outside help.

Frank Chikowore, a 26-year-old independent freelancer, was arrested in mid April and held for 17 days. He told TIME that he was kept in leg irons in a cell in Harare Remand Prison meant for five but packed with 40 other men. There were no lights or toilets, no water for days on end and food, when served, was "filthy." A detective inspector told Chikowore that "people like me were terrorists, sell-outs and not to be trusted," and that there was a campaign under way to detain all such suspects. "He showed [me] a list of 23 targeted freelance journalists," said Chikowore. As if to remove any doubt about the purpose of making such a list, it was under the heading: "Election 2008 targeted journalists."

Since the March 29 vote, the security services and militias calling themselves veterans of Zimbabwe's Independence War have fanned out across the country, intimidating, beating and killing opposition supporters and others suspected of disloyalty to the regime. The M.D.C. says around 32 of its members have died, although it is impossible to verify these claims. The repression seems aimed at cowing the country into "supporting" Mugabe, enabling him to make a spectacular comeback in any presidential run-off. Under Zimbabwe's electoral law, if no candidate wins the support of more than 50% of the electorate, the two leading candidates must face each other in a second round. Though that same law also mandates the second result must be held within three weeks of the first, the authorities have yet to announce a date for it, fuelling further speculation that they are delaying any new poll until after they can be sure that their campaign of fear has taken effect.

There is little hope of Mugabe and his Zimbabwean African National Union (Patriotic Front) (Zanu-PF) party retaining power by legitimate means. Unemployment is at 80%, inflation an absurd 100,000% and life expectancy has plunged into the mid-30s. After 28 years of one-man and one-party rule, the results of the March 29 general election showed most Zimbabweans were unconvinced by Zanu-PF claims that Zimbabwe's economic misfortunes were not the result of state incompetence and corruption, but rather a Western imperial plot to impoverish, and eventually recolonize, Zimbabwe.

Key to the gathering opposition to the regime has been the role played by independent journalists, who have persistently exposed its failings. Chikowore is an accredited journalist with Zimbabwe's Media and Information Commission. He was arrested on 16 April in Warren Park township in Harare, a day after a failed national strike by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.). In Warren Park, opposition protestors had burned a bus, and Chikwore gone to investigate. "Before I knew it, seven armed policemen arrested me," he said. "They dragged me to my home where they confiscated my video and still cameras, laptop and dicta-phone. I was told that I was being charged for practicing without accreditation. When I produced my press card, they changed the charges to arson. That also didn't stick so they preferred malicious injury to property. [In addition,] I was suspected of attempted murder. Eventually, I was charged with public violence in court." Chikwore was finally released on May 2, along with six M.D.C. activists. All seven have been granted bail, and are due to report to Harare Central Police's Law and Order Section twice a week.

Several other media figures have been arrested in the past week. On Thursday, Davison Maruziva, editor of the independent weekly The Standard was arrested at his newspaper's Harare office after publishing an opinion piece by M.D.C. figure Arthur Mutambara. A Zimbabwean photographer for Reuters, Howard Burditt, was also detained for three days and released on bail. Meanwhile Chikwore's lawyer, Harrison Nkomo, was arrested while waiting to make presentations at the High Court in connection with Chikowore's case. Nkomo, who has represented other foreign journalists detained in Zimbabwe, is said to have told senior prosecutor Michael Mugabe that his "father" should step down. Mugabe entered a four-page complaint and Nkomo was charged with making "dangerous public utterances likely to cause disaffection" with the head of state.

— With reporting by correspondents inside Zimbabwe