Zimbabwean authorities have shut down the Tribune, a weekly newspaper in the capital, Harare, marking the second time that officials have used a two-year-old media law to silence an independent editorial voice in that troubled African nation.
"This is part of a concerted campaign by government to close democratic space," said Iden Wetherell, editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent and chairman of the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum. "Another inconvenient voice has been silenced."
The government of President Robert Mugabe has faced frequent criticism in recent years. Under Mugabe, the nation's only leader since the overthrow of white minority rule in the early 1980s, the government has seized land from white farmers, charged the main opposition leader with treason and expelled foreign journalists. Hyperinflation has wracked the economy. The hungry and jobless have flooded into neighboring countries. And this week, the government announced it was taking control of all farmland, no matter the race of its previous owners.
Only four Zimbabwean newspapers can now freely cover the nation's economic and political turmoil, journalists said. The government and ruling party control radio and television broadcasting and the other daily newspapers.
Thursday's order by Zimbabwe's Media and Information Commission closed the Tribune for one year, charging it had failed to properly notify officials of a change in its business name, according to a commission statement.
"The cancellation has been carried out in terms of Section 71 of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Chapter 10," said the statement from commission chairman Tafataona Mahoso. "It shall remain in effect for one year."
Attempts to reach Mahoso by phone Friday were unsuccessful.
But journalists said the action came even though the newspaper was properly registered, its journalists accredited and its owner a member of parliament from Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.
In September, authorities used the same law to shut down the Daily News, an independent daily, as well as Daily News on Sunday. The Daily News' publisher, Sam Nkomo, and three other employees are on trial for contempt of court and for refusing to comply with the media law's requirement that newspapers be registered and journalists be accredited by the media commission.
Nkomo said police seized 179 computers and occupied the paper's headquarters and printing plant. "Once a newspaper begins to become critical of the regime . . . that newspaper, like us, will become a target," Nkomo said by telephone.
The Tribune, which was launched on June 1, 2002, and had a circulation of about 15,000, 60 full-time employees and 15 reporters, had registered under the media law. But in March, it was bought by Kindness Paradza, a veteran journalist.
A member of Mugabe's party, Paradza had been voted into parliament in a special election in September. The Tribune, meanwhile, became more aggressive in its coverage of the government.
"We were just reporting news as news, following the middle of the road," Paradza said. "Mugabe said corruption must be nipped in the bud, and that's what we were doing."
Paradza called the action by the media commission "politically motivated" and said the punishment was out of proportion to the offense of failing to notify the commission of a business name change.
"The perception is that this media commission was set up to shut down newspapers rather than develop them," Paradza said.
He said he would file a suit next week to overturn the ruling.
The opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, on Friday condemned the closure of the Tribune. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 2005, and opposition leaders say it will be difficult for voters to get objective views on issues without independent newspapers.
"Whilst Robert Mugabe is trying to hoodwink the world into believing that Zimbabwe is a haven for freedom of speech, his government is busy trying to concoct ways of emasculating the independent media ahead of the parliamentary elections," the Movement for Democratic Change said in a statement.