- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

With most foreign correspondents denied visas to cover next month's election, R.W. Johnson has entered Zimbabwe surreptitiously at risk of expulsion or arrest. He moves every few days to avoid detection.
HARARE, Zimbabwe Driving though Zimbabwe, one would not know the country is less than three weeks from a crucial presidential election.
Portraits of President Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, are now de rigueur in every office, on every bus and taxi, and any available tree.
In contrast, his principal challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, has a few posters up in central Harare where up to 90 percent will vote MDC if they can. Everywhere else, his party is invisible.
In practice, the MDC has been forbidden from campaigning anywhere in the rural areas, which make up 60 percent of the country.
The intimidation is so great that in an opinion poll made public yesterday, more than half of the 1,693 persons surveyed refused to say how they intended to vote.
Among those who did express an opinion to a University of Zimbabwe research group, Mr. Tsvangirai led Mr. Mugabe by an almost 2-to-1 margin. Police quickly banned the researchers from releasing further details of the poll.
Nor is the government eager for outside election observers to do their work. Last week, observers from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute were turned back at the border town of Livingstone near Victoria Falls. Observers from its Republican counterpart, the International Republican Institute, need not apply either.
Swedish diplomat Pierre Schori, head of the European Union's observer delegation, was effectively thrown out of the country Saturday after the government, which had given him only a tourist visa, interpreted his statement that he intended to go ahead with his work as "arrogant" and "political."
The EU replied by cutting off arms sales as well as imposing a travel ban and freezing all EU assets of Zimbabwe's 20 top officials, including Mr. Mugabe, who the EU has said for months must restore democracy and the rule of law or face sanctions.
Zimbabwe's borders are now closed to most foreign correspondents, and many independent local reporters have fled the country. Mr. Mugabe insists that only those journalists accredited by his regime may cover the election or even be in the country.
Basildon Peta, the head of Zimbabwe's journalist union, left for South Africa last week, saying he feared for his life. Mr. Peta, who reports for the Financial Gazette and Britain's Independent, has been arrested repeatedly, most recently two weeks ago.
"Even people who've been friends with journalists are under suspicion now," one source explained. The secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization, has established a special unit to track down "unauthorized" foreign correspondents.
Under new laws pushed through parliament by Mr. Mugabe and his supporters, it's now a crime to criticize the president. Acts of insurgency or sabotage defined by Mr. Mugabe are punishable by death.
There is widespread government-sponsored violence against the MDC and repeated attempts to discredit it with scare stories in the government media: Hundreds of British spies are said to be swarming into the country; Britain is accused of giving military training to the MDC; the MDC, in alliance with "Tony Blair's Gay gangsters," will, it is asserted, give full recognition to homosexuals and lesbians. "Lower than dogs even dogs know biology," as Mr. Mugabe puts it.
Mr. Mugabe's other favored target is Zimbabwe's white minority, which he calls "as bad as the Jews."
Fewer than 30,000 are left in a country of 10.5 million. Never a large presence in the first place, an estimated three out of four have left since the raids on white-owned farms and shops the underpinnings of what economy Zimbabwe has began two years ago.
The Forbes border post at Mutare, on the far eastern tip of Zimbabwe, is one of the most remote and difficult ways into the country. On the other side lies the vast expanses of roadless and often land-mined Mozambique.


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