|17. July 2009
Biti lifts import duty on newspapers to mark start of media reforms
Finance Minister Tendai Biti used his budget presentation on Thursday to signal the government's intention to reform the media, by scrapping import duty on newspapers. The Zanu PF led government in June last year imposed an import duty on foreign press, claiming 'hostile foreign newspapers' were coming into Zimbabwe. An extraordinary government gazette published by the regime said foreign publications, including newspapers, journals, magazines and periodicals, were to be classified as luxury goods and would attract import duty at 40% of the total cost per kilogram. But from 1st August, the inclusive government will remove all duty on imported newspapers. Biti told Parliament that access to information is 'essential to enhance decision making in the global village'.
In order to encourage the development of Information Communication Technology (ICT), he said he was therefore proposing to reduce rates of customs duty on computers, printers and telephone handsets and newspapers with effect from two weeks time. Since government imposed the duty The Zimbabwean, an independent weekly printed in South Africa, has had to pay them 3,6 million rand. Wilf Mbanga, its UK based editor, told us he was absolutely delighted that the minister has seen sense and removed the duty. 'The import duty very badly affected us. You will recall we were sending 200,000 copies into Zimbabwe on Thursdays, but we had to cut back from that down to 60,000 and for The Zimbabwean on Sunday we cut back from 60,000 to 50,000,' Mbanga said. 'It was a major climb down for us, we lost a lot money and our sales went down as well,' he added.
The Zimbabwean has suffered direct interference as well. In May last year, a month before the presidential re-run, suspected security personnel hijacked a truck delivering copies of the weekly, beat the drivers, and set fire to the truck with 60,000 copies of The Zimbabwean on Sunday inside. Observers say government's intention to impose import duty was to obstruct influential weeklies like The Zimbabwe and The Mail and Guardian. Zimbabwe has two dailies, both controlled by the government after the only privately-owned daily was harassed, bombed and finally shut down nearly five years ago. There are no private radio or television stations and for an alternative to the official line most Zimbabweans turn to foreign based independent radio stations like SW Radio Africa and regional newspapers, mostly from South Africa.
Zanu PF Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa blamed SW Radio Africa and The Zimbabwean for causing Robert Mugabe's historical defeat in last year's presidential vote. Recently the defence minister was at it again, asking cabinet to consider banning The Zimbabwean and its sister publication, The Zimbabwean on Sunday for allegedly 'undermining the inclusive government and fomenting hatred against security forces.' But his assertions were swiftly rejected by his colleagues in Cabinet, who scoffed at the suggestion of banning newspapers at a time when the new government is supposed to be considering opening up media space. He was reportedly told that if there was any newspaper that should be banned, it should be the Herald, as it was the chief culprit in undermining the inclusive government.