Nairobi, Kenya (CNSNews.com) - A continuing media clampdown in Zimbabwe has prompted fresh concerns among journalists in Africa that other repressive regimes on the continent may follow suit.
Mitch Odero, the head of the Media Council of Kenya, said the harassment of media organizations by President Robert Mugabe's government was even more worrying than it would otherwise be, because none of the neighboring countries appeared to be particularly concerned.
Ahead of parliamentary elections on March 31, Zimbabwe has stepped up a long-running campaign to control the media.
In the most recent case, a government-controlled media commission shut down an independent newspaper; the Weekly Times, after just eight weeks of publication, saying the paper violated media laws.
Three other papers, the Daily News, the Daily News on Sunday, and the Weekly Tribune have also been closed over the past two years.
Foreign correspondents, and some Zimbabwean journalists, have left the country, citing harassment by the state security officials.
Odero said free communication was an important human right. Without it, Zimbabweans would face "the worst form of colonization -- that of the mind."
Mugabe frequently rails at the outside world -- primarily at former colonial power Britain and the United States -- accusing the governments are promoting "colonization."
Zimbabwe is a member of a regional body known as Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), which has a protocol designed to promote human rights. Other members are South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho.
Odero questioned neighboring states' silence. "Zimbabwe is breaking this protocol and yet the other SADC members do not seem to be acting. That bothers me much more."
In Cape Town Wednesday, South African President Thabo Mbeki told reporters that Zimbabwe was adhering to the SADC protocol, and claimed that issues like "access to the public media ... have been addressed."
Speaking alongside Mbeki, another SADC state leader, Namibian President Sam Nujoma, said of Zimbabwe: "There is really no serious problem there, no problem there."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recently condemned what he called "a pattern of shutting down newspapers, shutting down civil society, restrictions on civil society, [and] a climate where the opposition ... fears for its safety."
"Open environment for journalists, the open environment for the opposition to peacefully contest the elections needs to be ensured," he said.
Mugabe has vowed to "bury" the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the election. MDC members have in past elections been attacked, and even killed, by Mugabe party loyalists.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the Mugabe government's repeated use of repressive laws and harassment of reporters made clear its intention to silence views that differ from its official version of events.
"The African and international communities should condemn this very unfortunate pattern," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper.
Many African journalists feel a wider use of online journalism would counter efforts by repressive governments to stifle unpopular views.
Reuben Kyama, a political scientist and journalist, said international support for online journalism in Africa was needed, because insecure regimes were trying to restrict the free flow of information.
"African media needs to establish a common voice to fight dictatorship regimes," he said. "What is happening in Zimbabwe will definitely send wrong signals to other dictators in Africa."
Kellys Kaunda, the head of the Zambian chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zambia) said the African Union must to pressure Mugabe to repeal the tough media laws.
Parliament in 2002 passed the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, under which journalists can be jailed for up to two years if they work without being registered with the state's media commission.
Zimbabwean journalists caught freelancing for foreign media can also be jailed for two years.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this year labeled Zimbabwe an "outpost of tyranny."
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