Zimbabwe threatens to shut down newspapers over WikiLeaks

Papers like the Daily News that ran excerpts of US diplomatic cables leaked by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks could be shut down, Zimbabwe's information minister Webster Shamu said Tuesday.

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The Zimbabwe government is threatening to shut down “private and foreign” news media organizations that it says are “abusing their journalistic privileges by denouncing the country and its leadership.”

The threat comes just days after the release of new US diplomatic cables by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks revealed widening rifts within the country’s dominant party, ZANU-PF.

The warning was delivered by Media, Information, and Publicity Minister Webster Shamu, who alleged in the state-controlled media Tuesday that private and foreign press were denigrating the country's leadership, including President Robert Mugabe and his family.

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"We are not against criticism,” Mr. Shamu said, but “they are forcing us to take measures and they must stand warned."

"Of late, these media houses and pirate radio stations have intensified their vitriolic attacks and the use of hate language on the person of His Excellency, the President and the party in a well calculated move aimed at influencing the results of the forthcoming elections,” Shamu said. “In other words, the execution of the regime change agenda has been intensified.”

Leaked cables irk officials

Shamu’s remarks come after a number of independent newspapers in Zimbabwe published stories about the latest release of confidential US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. In the leaked cables, US diplomats in the US embassy in Harare reported on conversations with several members of President Mugabe’s inner circle, including Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono and Professor Jonathan Moyo, a senior if somewhat independent member of the politburo of the ZANU-PF.

The fiery response by Shamu could be an indication of how seriously ZANU-PF leaders take the cables and their potential to disrupt the fragile coalition government in Zimbabwe, which includes members of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF as well as top members of the two main opposition parties, both of them factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Zimbabwe is expected to hold national elections sometime next year, and thus, any talk of disunity within the ZANU-PF, rumors of Mugabe’s ill health, or signs of sparring within the ZANU-PF to succeed Mugabe if he died or stepped down would almost certainly be unwelcome.

Using rhetoric often deployed against ZANU-PF’s political rivals, the MDC, Shamu blamed the latest leaks on the West, and defended his government’s rights to shut down news organizations in the name of Zimbabwe’s national security.

"The hypocrisy of the West, particularly Britain and America, in regard to press freedom should be exposed,” Shamu said. “These two countries have got some of the most Draconian media laws on earth, which severely restrict media freedom under the guise of protecting their national security."

"We have opened up to the BBC, we have licensed newspapers, and some have closed on their own, something that we had warned them that we need to be vibrant based on the performance of the economy,” Shamu said. “We can not allow the denigration of the highest office in the land."

Newspapers face lawsuits

In addition to the threats of Shamu, some news organizations are facing the possibility of lawsuits for defamation.

Jonathan Moyo has already filed suit against the Harare-based Daily News for $100,000 over two articles published by the paper based on WikiLeaks reports.

The two stories reported in detail about cables in which Moyo allegedly advised the US government to send “positive signals” to the ZANU-PF in order to encourage ZANU-PF members to abandon Mugabe ahead of 2008 elections. According to the cables, Moyo told US Ambassador Christopher Dell that Mugabe feared being hung. Now Moyo says the articles about the WikiLeaks cables are "unlawful, scandalous, contrived, fabricated, false, absurd, and highly defamatory."

When the Wikileaks cables were first leaked, Zimbabwe's attorney general threatened to file charges against those of Mugabe's inner circle who met with the US Embassy. No such threats were heard today, when the US Amb. Charles Ray, the US envoy in Harare, confirmed on Facebook that he had met with Mugabe to wish him "a good trip to New York" for the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting.

"He (Mugabe) was mentally alert and engaging,” Ambassador Ray wrote in his Facebook feed. "Like I said, it was a pleasant chat. Nothing on wikileaks. No wikileaks, no rants.”

While Zimbabwe has opened up to independent media during the past two years of coalition government, the Zimbabwe information minister could signal a return to the dark days of pre-2009, where newspapers were shut down under the banner of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). Even now, many press organizations maintain their headquarters in neighboring or Western countries, edited and written by exiled Zimbabwean journalists.

The Zimbabwe government has had strained relations with foreign press and governments. It banned many foreign broadcasting stations from Zimbabwe, including the BBC , CNN, Sky News, CBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation , ABC, and Fox News but overturned the bar in 2009.

During the March 2008 elections, which many foreign election observers said were deeply flawed, Zimbabwean police arrested a number of foreign journalists, including the New York TimesBarry Bearak, and the Times of London’s Jonathan Clayton.

-- The Monitor’s correspondent could not be named for security reasons.

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