BROOKE GLADSTONE: Under the repressive government of Robert Mugabe, the independent media in Zimbabwe have become a public enemy, and since his re-election in March, the situation has worsened. One of Mugabe's first acts in his new term was to sign the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act -- a tough anti-press law that empowers the government to close down newspapers, restrict access to government documents and imprison journalists for publishing falsehoods. One of the first journalists to be arrested for quote "abuse of journalistic privilege" was Andrew Meldrum, the Zimbabwe correspondent for the British paper The Guardian and the London-based magazine The Economist. Last December Andrew Meldrum was on OTM describing the deteriorating press conditions in Zimbabwe.
BOB GARFIELD:The story that landed Meldrum and several other journalists in jail briefly this month was first reported in Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, The Daily News. The story involved a charge of political violence -- the alleged decapitation of a woman by Mugabe supporters -- or so her husband said at the time.
ANDREW MELDRUM: As it turns out, the man apparently was not telling the truth. His wife had died, but not of political violence. And he has since disappeared. The government pounced on The Daily News and on me-- for publishing a falsehood, although The Daily News retracted their story immediately and I had a correction.
BOB GARFIELD: What's the mood among journalists right now in Zimbabwe?
ANDREW MELDRUM:There is a very beleaguered feeling because it's not just me and these two other journalists from The Daily News who have been arrested. Since the middle of March, there are a dozen journalists who have been arrested; several of us have been jailed; and 11 of us face these charges which, by the way, carries a sentence of up to a 100,000 dollar fine or up to 2 years in prison.
BOB GARFIELD:The Access to Information and Privacy Act obviously was enacted to intimidate journalists and to put a chilling effect on free and fair reporting of what the government is up to. Do you think that the press has been cowed by the, the threat of, of arrest and prosecution?
ANDREW MELDRUM: There is an ai--element of self-censorship that is going on, and in a few cases in the past couple of weeks, we've passed up on stories that we would have done in the past.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me an example.
ANDREW MELDRUM:There is a list that was made by the Commercial Farmers Union -- in other words the white farmers -- of about 40 or 50 Zimbabwean cabinet ministers, brothers in law of the president, people connected to Robert Mugabe who have benefitted from these land seizures, who have taken over farms. And of course these farms were seized, supposedly, to be distributed to poor black peasants, and instead we have a list of 40 or 50 bigwigs well-connected to Robert Mugabe and the party who have taken over farms. The list was published in the Financial Gazette newspaper which is an independent, privately-owned paper in Harare, and it was also published by The Daily News, and yet the major international news agencies and I have to say myself, we decided not to do the story because we can't go out to the 40 or 50 farms in one day and interview them and just ascertain that every single one of them is true, and if you get one wrong, why then that's a little cell in jail.
BOB GARFIELD:There must be a way around that. To say that the list was printed by another organization and to-- say that these are cronies of Mugabe who have been apparently enriched by the land seizures -- isn't the way the report the story while, while staying on the right side of the press repression law?
ANDREW MELDRUM: You're quite right. I mean to give full attribution and to put it in its full context, but remember my story about the woman who was beheaded - I didn't say a woman was beheaded. I wrote The Daily News reported that a woman was beheaded. I said the alleged killers. You know, the accused. I gave, you know, what the police will refuse to comment. You know, I gave every possible attribution and caveat in my story, and it made absolutely no difference.
BOB GARFIELD:When last we spoke we discussed the potential for backlash -- that the repressive measures would come back and bite the Mugabe government as the populace might begin to get nervous. Is there any evidence that the people of Zimbabwe are beginning to react negatively to the heavy-handed tactics of the government?
ANDREW MELDRUM: Yeah. There are plenty. I think probably one of the best is circulation figures of the state media versus the privately-owned media and The Sunday Mail newspaper which is state owned and has become an instrument of high propaganda, the circulation of The Sunday Mail has dropped from 160,000 to just 60,000. People have stopped watching the state television, and of course they have a monopoly on all television broadcasts. Now video stores have in the past two months have seen a marked up surge in video rentals because people are watching videos; they're not watching the television any more.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Meldrum, thank you very much, and once again, please -- take care.
ANDREW MELDRUM: Well, thanks very much for calling, and I appreciate the interest.
BOB GARFIELD:Andrew Meldrum is the Zimbabwe correspondent for The Economist Magazine and the newspaper The Guardian. He spoke to us from Harare, Zimbabwe where he awaits trial for violating the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, what happened to TV news since 9/11; when activists report; and Umberto Eco -- on the media.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.
"South Saturn Delta"
by Jimi Hendrix