||In an attempt to silence one of Zimbabwe’s last independent news outlets, six board members of the Harare-based Voice of the People radio station were charged last week with broadcasting without a license. They could face up to two years in jail.
The charges came after police raided the Harare home of one of the board members, Arthur Tsunga, and kidnapped two of his household staff. The two were detained without charge for four days in an effort to coerce the executive director of VOP, John Masuku to turn himself into the police. Masuku was charged with broadcasting without a license on December 23.
The board members David Masunda, Isabella Matambanadzo, Milli cent Phiri, Lawrence Chibwe, Nhlahla Ngwenya and Tsunga are scheduled to appear in court in Harare on February 10. They will be represented by Beatrice Mtetwa, a renowned Zimbabwean human rights lawyer.
The Voice of the People is one of a handful of independent news outlets in Zimbabwe, where the government exercises near-total control over the media. “Such a brazen assault on media freedom shows the bankruptcy of the Mugabe regime,” said Tawanda Muta sah, director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, part of the Soros foundations network. One of the board members facing charges, Isabella Matambanadzo, is OSISA’s co-ordinator for Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwean government, long hostile to its critics, appears to be stepping up its campaign to strangle civil society and tighten control over human rights groups. In a particularly troubling development, on January 26, two days VOP board members were charged with violating broadcasting laws, a man claiming to work for the Zimbabwe Military Intelligence Corps visited the offices of Arthur Tsunga and said that he had orders to assassinate him. Tsunga, who is the executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, was not present at the time.
The government claims that the Voice of the People has violated a 2001 broadcasting law intended to stifle any criticism of President Robert Mugabe’s administration, believed by rights groups to be one of the most repressive in the world. In fact, the Voice of the People does not broadcast out of Zimbabwe, but via Radio Netherlands in Madagascar.
The charges are the latest in a series of government attacks on the Voice of the People, whose equipment and files were seized in a government raid on its offices on December 15. Several VOP reporters were arrested during the raid and released without charge after four days in detention.
“Faced with such repression, and ever diminishing space for dissent, it is all the more important to defend one of the few remaining independent voices,” said Mutasah.
The Open Society Institute, a private operating and grantmaking foundation, works to build vibrant and tolerant democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.
To achieve its mission, OSI seeks to shape public policies that assure greater fairness in political, legal, and economic systems and safeguard fundamental rights. On a local level, OSI implements a range of initiatives to advance justice, education, public health, and independent media. At the same time, OSI builds alliances across borders and continents on issues such as corruption and freedom of information. OSI places high priority on protecting and improving the lives of marginalized people and communities. OSI works in over 60 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.