- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 2004

JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe’s opposition party has moved closer to a boycott of a planned general election in March after the government of President Robert Mugabe refused to air its campaign ads.

Paul Themba Nyathi, spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said in an interview Sunday that the rejection of the ad by the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. (ZBC) was proof that Mr. Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party planned to use the media to “hide the truth and spin lies to a vulnerable electorate.”

“The refusal by ZBC to accept our [ad] not only underlines the extent to which the Zimbabwe government is failing to comply with the election standards. It also provides a stark reminder of the fact that ZBC is now simply a propaganda arm of the ruling party,” Mr. Nyathi said.

Mr. Mugabe’s government controls all of the country’s radio and television stations and the daily press outlets. But the president in August signed new election guidelines brokered by a group of Zimbabwe’s African neighbors that, among other things, give all parties equal access to state media.

At the time of the August agreement, MDC officials said they were considering a boycott of the general election if the government did not live up to its promises for a free vote.

Mr. Nyathi said his party will make a decision on whether to participate in the vote by next month.

The Zimbabwe state broadcaster reportedly told the MDC that campaign ads should not criticize the government or ZANU-PF, and could not refer to human rights issues.

Rights groups, including Amnesty International, accuse the Zimbabwean government of widespread abuses, including rape, torture and intimidation of those who oppose Mr. Mugabe’s 24-year-long rule.

The MDC last week tried to hold forums with its members across the country, only to have several meetings broken up by police. New laws ban political meetings without police authorization, and it is now a criminal offense to criticize Mr. Mugabe or his record.

The MDC has called for a repeal of these laws and has made clear it is unlikely to contest the election unless one of its legislators, Roy Bennett, is released from jail. Mr. Bennett is serving a one-year sentence with hard labor for pushing a ZANU-PF minister in parliament.

Mr. Mugabe was returned to power in 2002 in a presidential election that many observers said was marred by fraud and violence. Members of the European Union and other Western countries, including Australia and the United States, refused to recognize the result.

Up to 4 million black Zimbabweans have fled abroad in recent years, but a 2002 law denies them the right to vote even if they return in time for the election. The law requires that voters prove they have been living in Zimbabwe for 12 months prior to an election.

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