(Johannesburg, April 4, 2008) – African leaders should use their influence to prevent a post-election crackdown in Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch said today. The recent arrest of two foreign journalists and a raid on offices used by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) raise serious concerns about widespread government repression in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s March 29, 2008 general elections.
On the evening of April 3, riot police arrested Barry Bearak, a correspondent for the New York Times, and another as yet unnamed foreign correspondent at the York Lodge guesthouse in the capital Harare. Police arrested three other people at the lodge but later released them. Lawyers representing the journalists told Human Rights Watch that police denied them access to their clients and they had to file an urgent court application requesting to see their clients. On the same evening police raided MDC offices in another Harare hotel.
Human Rights Watch called on the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to publicly urge the government of Zimbabwe to stop engaging in acts of intimidation.
Human Rights Watch also said Zimbabwean authorities should immediately allow lawyers to see the two journalists.
Zimbabwe held simultaneous presidential, parliamentary, senatorial, and local council elections on March 29. A Human Rights Watch report on the pre-election process concluded that it was deeply flawed and unlikely to lead to elections that were free, fair, or credible.
Police spokesperson Wayne Bvudzijena told the news agency Agence France Presse that the journalists were arrested and charged with practicing without accreditation under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).
Human Rights Watch has long argued that the AIPPA severely restricts the ability of journalists to report freely in the country, and violates the rights to freedom of expression and information. Amendments to the AIPPA in the run-up to the 2008 general elections have not removed the restrictive requirements on reporting in Zimbabwe. The government denied media accreditation to scores of foreign journalists from western governments such as the United Kingdom and the United States who wanted to report on the elections.
Despite these problems, Zimbabweans turned out to vote in an atmosphere that was relatively calm and free of violence. After several days, on April 2 the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) finally concluded its announcement of parliamentary results in which the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai party won 99 seats while the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front got 97 seats. Ten seats went to a smaller MDC faction led by Arthur Mutambara, and one seat went to independent candidate Jonathan Moyo.
However, almost a week after the vote, the electoral commission has yet to announce the results of the presidential election. Predictions by independent monitors of a close race between the two presidential candidates, Tsvangirai and the incumbent, Robert Mugabe, suggest a possible second round of elections.
Human Rights Watch also urged the AU and SADC to send in monitors to assess the human rights environment as soon as the presidential results are announced.
“It is commendable that Zimbabweans have remained calm in the face of unnecessary delays in announcing the presidential results,” Gagnon said. “If the presidential election goes to a second round the potential for political violence and intimidation will increase. It’s critical that the AU and SADC act now.”