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Freedom of information threatened by attacks



Published: Wed, February 6, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Freedom of the press, guaranteed to Americans by the First Amendment of the Constitution, is a right so taken for granted that it is almost impossible for citizens here to imagine a nation where newspapers, radio and television stations and even Internet access are permitted to exist solely for the purpose of supporting the government in power. But once again, the tyrants who would keep the truth locked behind prison walls are at it again.

Two contemporaneous examples stand out: the first, the kidnapping in Pakistan of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; the second, the passage by Zimbabwe's parliament of a law which makes it a crime to criticize President Robert Mugabe.

While these two cases are the most current, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, a total of 37 journalists were killed worldwide as a direct result of their work in 2001, a sharp increase from 2000 when 24 were killed. In addition to those killed in combat, at least 25 were murdered in reprisal for their reporting on either official corruption and crime or other crime, particularly drug trafficking.

Perhaps because Pearl's kidnappers cannot envision a press not hand-in-hand with government, they do not understand that Washington will not release captive terrorists in exchange for a captured reporter. Perhaps because of their cultural blinders, they do not see that their cause -- whatever it is -- is harmed far more than helped by their action.

What they may accomplish, however, is to intimidate news organizations and journalists from reporting the news from Pakistan or other nations where their safety is unduly threatened.

Official opposition: While the threat in Pakistan appears to be opposed by the government there, in Zimbabwe, it is the government itself which seeks the end to a free and independent press.

The constitution of Zimbabwe is supposed to guarantee free expression, but that hasn't stopped Mugabe or Information Minister Jonathan Moyo from trying to gag the opposition as elections in the African nation draw near.

Last year, Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, the Daily News, was firebombed after Moyo branded it an & quot;enemy of the state & quot; that must be silenced. Moyo also banned all BBC correspondents from Zimbabwe because of what he called & quot;biased & quot; reporting. Britain's BBC is one of the most highly regarded news organizations in the world.

The ironically named Freedom of Information and Privacy Bill controls who may be licensed as a journalist -- and licenses can be refused or revoked for any reason -- and bars journalists from publishing stories that "cause alarm and despondency" or that "undermine the authority of the president" or "engender hostility" towards him. The punishment for violation of the law: heavy fines and prison terms.

By handcuffing the press, Mugabe lets the world know nevertheless what he has done to break Zimbabwe's promise of democracy




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