- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2002

JOHANNESBURG Zimbabwe lurched toward dictatorship yesterday as President Robert Mugabe defied international criticism by preparing to assume sweeping new powers.
Tough laws curbing the press, limiting election monitors and allowing the police to clamp down on political opponents could be enacted as early as today.
As 10 opponents of the ruling Zimbabwe Africa National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) were arrested and more white-owned farms were seized, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw threatened to have Zimbabwe thrown out of the Commonwealth.
"If the situation continues to deteriorate, Britain will argue for Zimbabwe's suspension," he told the House of Commons.
Mr. Mugabe's attempt to rush the package of draconian laws through the Zimbabwean parliament was seen as a crude ploy to try to secure victory in the coming presidential election, expected in March.
Early indications showed that Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change was posing Mr. Mugabe's closest electoral challenge since he swept to power in 1980, when Zimbabwe won its independence.
The package includes laws restricting election monitors and giving the police additional powers to repress political opposition.
One measure, titled the "Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill," included dramatic curbs on the press and freedom of expression.
"It seems to be part of a rather horrific buildup to the election," said Anton Harber, journalism professor at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
"And it is clear that the bill is just one way the Zimbabwean government will use to control criticism of the president and to try to win the election.
"The threats of fines or jail sentences against journalists do not have to be implemented to be effective. The threat of them alone has such a chilling effect that it will freeze out a lot of coverage."
In Zimbabwe, independent journalists said they would challenge the law as soon as possible on the grounds that it breached the constitution.
If that happens, the law could backfire for Mr. Mugabe, as it could take until after the presidential election for the Zimbabwean courts to make their ruling.
In the meantime, the law would be subject to an injunction and unenforceable during the campaign.
Constitutional analysts described the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill as "ill-conceived, badly drafted and dangerous."
Others said the new regime for journalists imposed in Zimbabwe is tougher than any other imposed in Africa or elsewhere in recent times.
The bill outlaws all foreign journalists from working in Zimbabwe. It says only Zimbabwean citizens can work as journalists and only after being registered and accredited by a new, powerful Media and Information Commission run by officials appointed by Mr. Mugabe.
Foreign news organizations cannot even be represented by local Zimbabwean journalists, as the only news organizations allowed to function will have to be owned by Zimbabweans.
The law included petty attempts to defend the name of the head of state, threatening two years in jail or hefty fines for anyone guilty of "denigrating, bringing into hatred or contempt or ridicule or exciting disaffection against the president."
But its most repressive element was its sweeping attempt to create and control a register of all journalists allowed to operate in Zimbabwe.
The government's critics said they were not surprised that the laws would apply only to independent journalists. Employees of state-owned organizations such as the Herald newspaper are exempted from the restrictions.
Brian Crozier, who worked as a senior civil servant in Zimbabwe's Justice Ministry until last year, said the bill contravened Zimbabwe's constitutional commitment to the freedom of expression.
"Most of the controls the bill seeks to impose are unconstitutional," he said, "but their very unconstitutionality is disturbing."
This suggested that the government "has decided to impose an authoritarian control over the news media regardless of constitutional restrictions," Mr. Crozier said.
Mr. Harber, the journalism professor, said he had never seen more draconian rules for reporters, even during the apartheid era in South Africa when the white government considered but held back from creating a compulsory registry of journalists.
The crisis in Zimbabwe began in the run-up to the 2000 parliamentary elections when Mr. Mugabe sought to win popularity with poor rural people by giving them land on white-owned commercial farms.
Militant supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party stormed the white farms, attacking and in some cases murdering the owners.
The land grab was completely outside the rule of law, but Mr. Mugabe defied everyone even judges who criticized the policy.
Mr. Mugabe painted the conflict as a clash between greedy white colonialists and poor, exploited blacks, even though thousands of black farmworkers lost their livelihoods.
The policy ruined Zimbabwe's once buoyant economy and dragged one of Africa's few post-independence success stories close to anarchy.
The European Union has threatened economic sanctions against Zimbabwe.
Britain's threat to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth would have to be discussed at the next meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government in Australia in March.
Jonathan Moyo, the Zimbabwe information minister, said, "Britain is going a step further from funding the opposition," repeating a long-standing contention that the British government finances the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
Mr. Mugabe is attempting to secure a new six-year term.

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