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ELECTIONS NOT FREE AND FAIR WITHOUT MEDIA FREEDOM

With Zimbabwe's presidential and parliamentary election results slowly trickling in, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Human Rights Watch and other IFEX members say that the prevailing media and free expression environment has made free and fair elections impossible.

"Critical and alternative voices have not been allowed the freedom to operate and be heard," says MISA. "It is MISA's position that any electoral process characterised by biased and unethical reporting, intimidation and legal gags placed on the media cannot pass the test of being free and fair no matter that the actual voting process might seem free and fair."

According to MISA, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Zimbabwean government used journalist accreditation laws to prevent several major media groups, such as the BBC, CNN and South Africa's E-TV, from covering the general elections on 29 March, despite signing on to regional and international covenants that guarantee a free press.

Just days before the poll, in which longstanding President Robert Mugabe is running for re-election, a presidential spokesperson announced that the government was being mindful of "attempts to turn journalists into observers or to smuggle in uninvited observers and security personnel from hostile countries under the guise of the media."

Zimbabwean journalists were also banned from covering the elections under Zimbabwe's stringent accreditation laws. They include freelance journalist Hopewell Chin'ono, winner of this year's Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellowship.

CPJ reported that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission planned to station police officers 100 metres from polling areas during the elections, preventing access for all unaccredited journalists.

Coverage in the state media has also been heavily biased in favour of the ruling party. Human Rights Watch documented how opposition candidates found it almost impossible to access Zimbabwe's state-controlled radio stations and television. For the entire month of February, for example, state-owned television devoted five times more coverage to Mugabe and his ruling party ZANU-PF than all the opposition parties combined.

Hate messages targeting the opposition have intensified, and in some cases led to violence against opposition supporters, reports MISA. Statements from the security forces threatening citizens and the opposition were amplified by the state media to instil fear in ordinary Zimbabweans.

"The 29 March poll has again been marred by authoritarian measures and irregularities," says RSF. "The international observers accepted by the government will not be able to pretend that the circumstances surrounding the elections were fine. It is clear that press freedom, at least, has not been guaranteed, which is a serious flaw for elections that are supposed to be democratic."

Discontent with Mugabe's rule has grown around the country. Inflation is the highest in the world at more than 100,000 percent and people suffer crippling shortages of food, water, electricity, fuel and medicine.

At the time of writing, independent observers say trends support opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai winning the largest number of votes in the presidential race, but not enough to avoid a runoff. The delay in official results has reinforced suspicions that the count is being rigged.

Visit these links:
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/2xjqks
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/37axet
- Human Rights Watch, "All Over Again: Human Rights Abuses and Flawed Electoral Conditions in Zimbabwe's Coming General Elections": http://hrw.org/reports/2008/zimbabwe0308/
- MISA: http://tinyurl.com/28ep68
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=26334
- IFEX Zimbabwe page: http://tinyurl.com/28mvww
(1 April 2008)

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