January 17, 2002

ZIMBABWE: Media Bill debate delayed

The ruling ZANU PF party has delayed introducing a widely criticised Bill seen as curbing media freedom until Tuesday, January 22, to allow it to make changes, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said yesterday. "After some lengthy consultations with objective-minded media organisations and the deliberation with honourable members on my side, I have suggested some amendments to the Access to Information and Privacy Bill," Chinamasa told Parliament.

The current draft of the Bill proposes barring foreign journalists from working in Zimbabwe and compelling local journalists and media groups to apply for a one-year renewable licence issued by a government-appointed commission.

The British newspaper „Daily Telegraph" reported that the media Bill was put on hold because of a revolt in parliament from within the ranks of ZANU PF party. Dr Edison Zvobgo, a ZANU PF founder who heads the parliamentary legal committee, delayed the second reading of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill by being "unavailable" to present a report on the Bill to parliament. The block appeared to have forced the government to consider amending the Bill, before it comes before the house again on Tuesday, January 22. Under the constitution, Zvobgo's committee must check Bills before they are put to a second vote.

Political sources in Harare said that Zvobgo and his committee would have found many clauses within the media Bill unconstitutional. ZANU PF lobbyists are expected to try to strike a deal with Zvobgo to submit his report if some of the Bill's more robust clauses are withdrawn. Dr John Makumbe, a political analyst, said: "They are in a bind, but, remember, the president can rule by decree and that Bill, and the amendments to labour legislation, can still be put into law, and ZANU PF needs them ahead of the elections."

Zvobgo was one of the founders of ZANU PF, and its main legal negotiator at the Lancaster House talks in 1979 which led to Zimbabwe's independence. In recent years he fell out with Mr Mugabe because he criticised the way the party was run, particularly in his province, Masvingo, south of Harare. He was dropped from the cabinet and from the politburo but is on record as saying he would never leave ZANU PF.

On Friday, January 18, Zimbabwe, facing possible EU sanctions, missed its deadline for pledging in writing that it will accept international observers and journalists for its March 9-10 elections, sources said. "They had a week to respond, and I'm not aware of any response having been received yet" by the Spanish EU presidency, said one diplomatic source. "If they haven't gotten anything, it may lead the EU to conclude certain things," he said, stressing however that the deadline was "not legalistic" and that the 15 member states were still "examining all options." "They are being cautious. Nothing is being prejudged," he said.

The EU turned up the pressure on Zimbabwe on Friday, January 11, when it gave President Robert Mugabe's government a week to state in writing that it would accept international observers and news media before and during the polls. The demand was tabled by the Spanish EU presidency, on behalf of all EU member states, during a meeting in Brussels with a delegation from Harare, led by Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge. Possible sanctions might include a European travel ban on Mugabe and associates, a freeze on their assets, and the suspension of development aid which has been averaging 20-million euros ($18-million) a year.

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