January 25, 2002

Press Bill again delayed / critical lack of food

Zimbabwe's parliament delayed debate on tough new press restrictions on January 24, for the fifth time, with top ruling party officials blaming each other for the impasse only six weeks before presidential elections. Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa, who is leader of house, blamed the powerful parliamentary legal committee for delaying its verdict on whether the bill follows Zimbabwe's constitution, forcing parliament to wait until Tuesday for a possible vote. "It has become evident that the House is being held to ransom by the parliamentary legal committee," Chinamasa said on the floor.

But Edson Zvobgo, the leader of the committee who is considered a maverick within the ruling party, blamed Chinamasa for failing to follow parliamentary procedures. "Members are quite aware of the chaos that was caused by government, by the minister, in putting this bill together," he said. "We have co-operated at every stage," he said. "The minister has held the House to ransom by his inability to put this thing together a lot more neatly," he said. Zvobgo said his committee should have 26 days to consider the bill, while so far it has been given only two.

The exchange was a rare public display of disagreements within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). Information minister Jonathan Moyo had vowed to push the bill through parliament in December, but has had to deal with a barrage of criticism at home and abroad. The bill would require journalists to seek accreditation every year from a panel hand-picked by Moyo. Foreigners would be unable to work full-time in Zimbabwe. No news organisation would be able to seek foreign funding, a clause that could hinder operations at the Daily News, Zimbabwe's only private daily newspaper. The bill also limits the ability of journalists to work, for example by making it an offence to report on cabinet proceedings. Violations of the law would be punished by stiff fines and up to two years in prison.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) in Harare warned on January 23, that the food shortage in Zimbabwe was critical, with many people selling their livestock and belongings to buy food and surviving on only one meal a day. Anna Shotton, a programme officer with the WFP in Zimbabwe, said the United Nations agency had begun a widespread project to supply food to needy areas across the country. South African maize meal, ordered by the WFP, began arriving in Zimbabwe on January 23. Shotton said once sufficient stocks had been built up and arrangements were in place, distribution would start. Observers say the food shortage has come at a critical time for President Robert Mugabe, who is facing his toughest challenge for power in a presidential election in March 2002. However, the arrival of food aid on the eve of the election could work in his favour. The government accused white farmers this week of withholding maize to create a false shortage in retaliation for the seizure of white-owned farms. Zimbabwe's state grain board impounded more than 36.000 tons of maize from commercial farmers.

The WFP is hoping to supply food in 19 districts mainly in the south, west and extreme north of the country. Shotton said the WFP had not experienced any impediments from the government in the setting up of its aid effort. The WFP is working under an a legal agreement termed a letter of understanding with the government, but will distribute the food aid through non-governmental organisations. These include Care Canada and Worldvision from the US, as well as Zimbabwean non-governmental bodies Christian Care and the Organisation of Rural Associations for Progress. The food shortage in Zimbabwe is due to a combination of factors, says the WFP. Among these are last year's disruption to planting on commercial farms due to the invasions by so-called war veterans. Others include drought, erratic rainfall and floods. The economic downturn has also made it difficult for some subsistence farmers to buy seed and other inputs.

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