Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s government seems to be taking a tougher line with the media, raiding a community radio station and imposing a prison sentence on a journalist in the space of a week.
The latest events follow weeks of gathering storm clouds for the media in Zimbabwe, a country that saw 22 media freedom violations in 2014 and whose president who is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom.”
“The two latest developments have sounded a new alarm for media freedom, which is already very troubled in Zimbabwe,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk.
“The authorities have reacted in a completely disproportionate manner to what these media outlets are alleged to have done. As the African Union’s current chair, Robert Mugabe should set an example of AU's respect for its democratic obligations, including media freedom. This kind of harassment must stop.”
Officers from police headquarters in the central city of Masvingo raided community radio station Wezhira on 29 June, two weeks after police questioned producer Wilson Mapoa for the third time on suspicion of broadcasting without a licence.
Mapoa’s lawyer said the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe was already processing the station’s request for a licence and that the repeated interrogations were illegal inasmuch as the police should be putting their questions to the organization that owns the radio station, which they refused to do.
Mapoa said the police had threatened to return, seize the radio station’s equipment and close it down. They also wanted to know where the station got the money to pay for the equipment.
The raid came six days after freelance journalist Patrick Chitongo was sentenced to a total of 12 months in prison (four of them suspended) for publishing three issues of a newspaper called The Southern Mirror without a permit from the Zimbabwe Media Commission, thereby violating section 72 (1) of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).
Chitongo said the three issues were produced as examples to be submitted to the commission along with a permit application. He is appealing against his sentence and his lawyer has requested his release on bail. Meanwhile, he continues to be detained.
Zimbabwe is ranked 131st out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.