Zimbabwe Government Goes After Media

In Zimbabwe, the government has launched a crackdown on local media. In a recent case, police raided a radio station called Voice of the People, confiscated equipment and prosecuted members of its board of directors.

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RENE MONTAINE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Rene Montaine.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We're about to meet some people who have reason to note the words of Mark Twain. He once wrote that Americans have three precious things, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either. In two other countries people tried to practice their freedoms and these are the stories of what happened next.

RENEE MONTAINE, host:

The first story involves a radio station in Zimbabwe. It's called Voice of the People, and it tried to get around the draconian media restrictions imposed by President Robert Mugabe. Now the station's board members are being prosecuted. One made it to Washington D.C. and spoke freely with NPR's Michelle Kelemen.

MICHELLE KELEMEN reporting:

When she was first approached to join the board of Voice of the People radio four years ago, Isabella Matambanadzo was a bit leery. The company's offices had just been the target of a mysterious bombing. The former reporter joined anyway, then troubles resumed. Plain-clothes police raided the new office.

Ms. ISABELLA MATAMBANADZO (Voice of the People, board member): And they had a warrant to seize all broadcasting equipment, and we don't have any, so they were very upset. And they went back to the police station and rewrote the warrant to enable them to seize any equipment.

KELEMEN: The reason why there was no transmitting equipment, she says, is because Zimbabwe's Voice of the People has a deal with Radio Netherlands, which broadcasts the material via a short-wave transmitter in Madagascar. Still 32-year-old Matambanadzo and her fellow trustees face charges that could land them in jail for two years.

Ms. MATAMBANADZO: We were caught completely off-guard by the attack at the offices, and to this day we are quite startled about why it happened.

KELEMEN: Her main job isn't any easier. She works for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, founded by the philanthropist George Soros.

Ms. MATAMBANADZO: It's more terrifying to be advocating for the ideal of an open society, you know, when you are in this environment that keeps shutting down, closing, closing--and where you are seen, not as a responsible patriot who questions the state but as a sell-out to Western interests.

KELEMEN: The Bush Administration has called Zimbabwe an outpost of tyranny, and the United Nations has criticized human rights practices in the country. But Princeton Lyman, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the net effect of all this pressure has been zero.

PRINCETON LYMAN (Council on Foreign Relations): That is the dilemma. We don't have a great deal of leverage in Zimbabwe, and we don't really have a major strategic interest in Zimbabwe. And therefore our ability to move that situation is quite limited, and we've found that out over the last several years.

KELEMEN: While the Bush Administration has put democracy promotion at the center of it's foreign policy agenda, all it can do is support civil society groups, and rely on Zimbabwe's neighbors--according to New Jersey Congressman Donald Payne, the ranking Democrat on the House International Sub-Committee on Africa.

Congressman DONALD PAYNE (Democrat, New Jersey; House International Sub-Committee on Africa): I do think that there are people in the neighborhood trying to quietly, have quiet diplomacy with Mr. Mugabe to really try to encourage him to step out of government, and sort of let the country stabilize itself before it totally collapses. There is so much potential there, and it is going in such a wrong direction.

KELEMEN: Isabella Matambanadzo doesn't see Zimbabwe's neighbors taking a tough enough line, in part because of Robert Mugabe's own personal history.

Ms. MATAMBANADZO: Mr. Mugabe spent 11 years in jail for Zimbabwe so we can't take away the role he played in our liberation, and we respect that phenomenally. But now he heads a government that is responsible for a lot of repression in the country, and the contradiction and the tension of living in such a society is very, very, very enormous.

KELEMEN: During her trip here she listened to radio reports about New Orleans six months after Hurricane Katrina. It gave her an idea for a project back home, if her colleagues can get their equipment back from police. That is to interview victims of what's being called Zimbabwe's Tsunami. Last spring Zimbabwe's government launched an operation to clean up slums, houses were demolished and some 700,000 people displaced, drawing condemnation from the U.N.

Michelle Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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