As a new round of negotiations on the human rights situation in Zimbabwe opens in Brussels on 11 January 2002, Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), in a letter addressed to Mr. Josep Piqué I Camps, Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, representative of the Presidency of the European Union, called for strong measures to be taken against political leaders of that country.
"The human rights and press freedom situation in Zimbabwe is catastrophic. The EU has put in place sanctions mechanisms in case any member state engaged in massive human rights violations. We are asking the Union to apply such sanctions, not against the people of Zimbabwe, but against their leaders. Brussels could also impose travel restrictions on President Mugabe‚s close associates and members of his government," said Robert Ménard, RSF Secretary General.
"The President and the government in Harare are harassing both local and foreign journalists with impunity. There are continuous threats and arrests, and the independent press is finding it more and more difficult to play its role of informing public opinion. This must stop and the EU must exert its influence to bring this to an end," the press freedom watchdog leader added. RSF is calling on EU officials to implement Article 96 of the Cotonou Convention which prescribes certain sanctions in cases of human rights abuse, failure to uphold democratic principles and the rule of law.
In 2001, Zimbabwe became one of the countries in the whole of African continent that most suppressed press freedom. Twenty local journalists were arrested and three foreign press correspondents were expelled from the country. President Robert Mugabe is listed by RSF as one of the thirty nine (39) "predators" of press freedom in the world. Throughout the year 2001, the president and his government uttered shocking comments against the press.
In September for instance, the Minister for Communication Jonathan Moyo accused the BBC and the British dailies, The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph of "working for British intelligence services". He added that "in the interest of law and order, competent authorities will crack down on some well known individuals in order to curb the law of the jungle they are trying to create in the country through the media."
The Daily News, the only independent daily paper in the country has been subjected to real harassment by the authorities. Its editor, Geoffrey Nyarota has been arrested several times in the course of the year.
The government and the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) launched a series of law suits against the paper, demanding huge compensation "for damages caused by the paper" aimed at stifling. The harsh economic situation and the violence pitting white farmers against war veterans have only helped the government to step up its repression against the most critical newspapers in the country.
Already at the end of June, the EU ministers of foreign affairs expressed their concern about the deteriorating political situation in Zimbabwe. They called on Zimbabwean authorities to uphold the rule of law, freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary. Days earlier, the US government accused Zimbabwean authorities of forbidding the press to report on what was really going on in the countryside.
A Bill on free access to information is now being debated in the Zimbabwean parliament. If it becomes law, it will forbid foreign journalists from working in the country. The Bill also makes it clear that all media professionals will have to be granted authorisation by a special commission to be set up by the government, before being allowed to work. The authorisation will be renewable after one year.