Economic crisis throws Zimbabwe into 'information dark age'

Newspapers have become too expensive for all but a tiny minority, while the state-controlled radio and television monopoly services are stricken by chronic power cuts, says the independent Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe (MMPZ).

Zimbabwe is classified by the New York-based international Committee to Protect Journalists as among the 10 worst countries for hostility to freedom of the media.

An armoury of repressive laws introduced in 2002 by President Robert Mugabe’s regime prescribe sentences for "crimes" such as working as a journalist without accreditation from the state-run media commission and publication of information "likely to bring the government into disrepute."

MMPZ coordinator Andrew Moyse says the country’s media landscape is already dominated by government mouthpieces providing "biased and selective coverage, even during this important period in the country’s history," referring to a stalled power-sharing agreement between the country’s 84-year-old autocratic president and prime minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai.

"Now it’s becoming clear that the nation has been plunged into an even more intense and suffocating information dark age, where reliable information is at a premium and the main means of communicating news is rapidly reverting to word of mouth, or SMS," he said.

Under Mugabe’s reckless management, the country has plummeted in the last eight years from one of Africa’s most prosperous nation to a land scarred by chronic food shortages, hyperinflation and a nearly worthless currency.

"In any other country, a newspaper is probably the cheapest item of people’s daily expenditure," said Moyse. "Here, who is going to sacrifice a loaf of bread to read the Herald?"

The country’s independent newspapers, which receive no subsidies, the Zimbabwe Independent, the Sunday Standard and the Financial Gazette, now cost 4,500 Zimbabwe dollars – taking them "into the luxury items bracket."

The regime has blocked the emergence of any independent electronic media, while state radio and television maintain a relentless barrage of hostility against Mugabe’s opponents.

Even the public broadcaster is feeling the heat of the economic meltdown. In April, it admitted it was covering only 45 per cent of the country, because of antiquated and run-down transmission equipment.

Earlier this year, the government-owned transmitter company said it needed 45 million US dollars to upgrade its equipment. The government stumped up 500, 000 US dollars which, according to state media, was promptly stolen by a government official.

Whatever the source – whether the official media, foreign-based private radio stations, online news agencies or e-mail, news is becoming increasingly elusive, as a result of ever-more frequent and severe power cuts, said Moyse.

"Only those lucky enough to own their own generators – depending on the availability of fuel – have access to information on a fairly regular basis."

Rural people with no access to electricity are becoming totally cut off fromas cheap radios disappear from shops and battery prices soar.

Earlier this year, Ray Kaukonde, Mugabe’s former governor of one of the country’s largest provinces in the north-east, compounded the isolation by ordering that shortwave radios be seized to stop people listening to private radio stations broadcasting from outside the country.

"It’s a basic truth that where communication is suffocated, rumour and speculation abound," said Moyse. "The authorities complain bitterly about this grievous state of affairs, yet it is entirely of their own making."