US protests media arrests in Zimbabwe

AP News
Posted: Dec 07, 2011 10:52 AM
US protests media arrests in Zimbabwe

The United States on Wednesday protested the increasing number of arrests of journalists and civic activists ahead of the completion of constitutional reforms and proposed elections in Zimbabwe.

Andrew Moyse, head of an independent media monitoring group, was freed from jail late Tuesday after police raided his offices and seized CDs and DVDs alleged to contain subversive material. Three of his staff arrested Monday remained in custody in western Zimbabwe. In a new crackdown by police, four other independent journalists have been arrested since Nov. 15.

In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe criticized the selective targeting of media figures. It said this was an "important year" in Zimbabwe for constitutional and electoral reform meant to guarantee free expression after years of sweeping media curbs enforced by President Robert Mugabe's party and loyalist police and security forces.

The embassy said the latest round of arrests went against terms of a coalition agreement between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader, that committed their parties to "a free and unfettered media and civil society" essential for future political and economic development."

The statement called on the coalition to uphold the rule of law without bias.

Officials at Moyse's Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe said Wednesday police said they were looking for material referring to an armed uprising against Mugabe in western Zimbabwe soon after independence in 1980 that was crushed by loyal troops. Media coverage of the rebellion was suppressed but human rights and church groups reported 30,000 civilians were massacred before a peace pact ended the conflict in 1987.

None of the group's material mentioned the rebellion and only called for tolerance, fair political campaigning and an end to "hate speech" commonly reported in the Zimbabwe media, Moyse told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

On Monday, three monitoring group officials were detained in the western Zimbabwe town of Gwanda after police alleged they held an illegal political gathering there that was not approved by authorities under the nation's sweeping security laws.

The group denied it was an illegal meeting and said the officials met with local group members as part of a civic education campaign calling for fair and balanced reporting on elections proposed next year.

The three officials were also charged under a separate law prohibiting meetings held "with intent to promote public violence, breaches of the peace or bigotry."

Later Wednesday, a magistrate in the western town of Gwanda refused to free Moyse's three staff members on bail and ordered them to stay in the town's prison until another hearing scheduled Friday.

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Two are women aged in their 20s whom state prosecutors said "are still of a young and impressionable age" and would likely abscond if given bail.

Moyse, 61, a veteran journalist, said his junior staffers, in police hands for the first time, were "terrified" by jail conditions in Gwanda and their harsh treatment by police and prison officers ahead of Friday's resumed bail hearing.

The media monitoring organization said there were no grounds for any arrests of officials or members of the legally registered media campaigning group which also circulates research and public statements on bias and imbalances in both the state and independent media in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition of pro-democracy groups said the latest "outrageous" arrests signaled the beginning of a crackdown on the media and civic activists similar to those that have preceded past elections. More arrests could be expected, it said.

"Journalists must be allowed to do their work without hindrance from law enforcement agents," the coalition said.