The World Association of Newspapers and The World Editors Forum have highlighted an pernicious attack on press freedom in Zimbabwe, set in motion last month by Robert Mugabe, but which has slipped under the radar.
He has imposed a “luxury tax” on imported newspapers.
The problem Mugabe’s regime faced was that – even after bringing the Zimbabwean press under State control – the editors and journalists he threatened, harassed and had beaten up – fled to neighbouring South Africa and the UK and set up newspapers outside of his control. One example is The Zimbabweanwhich is printed in Johannesburg and trucked into Zimbabwe. It had a circulation of 200 000.
The tax also applies to South African newspapers, which are very popular in Zimbabwe
A lot of Zimbabwean readers look to the South African press for an independent insight into what the Mugabe government is doing because the Zimbabwean press has been decimated by censorship. They are also very keenly interested in reporting on the South African government’s approach to Zimbabwe. South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki has been the official mediator appointed by the SADC to try and negotiate a settlement between Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
With hyper-inflation running rampant, real starvation is a greater threat to the ordinary Zimbabwean than news-starvation. Consequently this “luxury tax” has had the effect of practically wiping out any media critical of the Mugabe regime. The Zimbabwean has had to cancel its Sunday edition, and has had to reduce its print run to a mere 60 000.
In a letter to Mugabe (for all the good it will do them), the Word Editors Forum said:
“Restricting access to information by punitive taxation constitutes a clear breach of the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by numerous international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
But Mugabe is a dictator whose thugs hack off people’s limbs and burn them alive, murder women because their husbands are opposition party officials, and attack supporters with machetes and pick-axe handles. He is unlikely to take this point on board. Indeed, breaching “the right to freedom of expression” was undoubtedly his aim.
His response will not be “oh dear, what have I done?”; more likely he will exclaim “mission accomplished!”.