afrol News, 31 January - As Zimbabwe avoided the suspension from the Commonwealth defying strong British pressure, it was observed that the meeting was split on racial lines. Official Zimbabwe celebrated the result as a "diplomatic victory". Reassured by its victory, the government is increasing its pressure on the free media.
The Zimbabwean government yesterday criticised the Commonwealth and the European Union for attempting to "perpetuate an archaic colonial relationship" between Europe and Africa. Zimbabwean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stan Mudenge, said his country was tired of being dictated to by the EU and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group instead of being engaged in dialogue.
Zimbabwe had been reassured by the governments of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) they were against the Commonwealth's suspension proposal, spearheaded by the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, the African and Asian countries preferred a condemnation of the situation in Zimbabwe rather than a suspension or sanctions.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group was composed of representatives from eight countries, and diplomatic sources said that the group was split, four to four. Australia, Canada and Barbados were backing the British proposal, while Botswana, which chaired the meeting, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Malaysia were opposing it. The group requires a consensus for all its decisions.
The action group's meeting however resulted in a demand to immediately end the political violence in Zimbabwe and called for all parties in the March presidential election to be allowed to campaign freely. It also expressed concern over the violence and actions against the freedom and independence of the media.
The SADC countries yesterday had agreed not to participate in any form of future sanctions on Zimbabwe by the EU or Commonwealth. Malawian Foreign Minister, Lillian Patel, commented she and SADC believed "the situation in Zimbabwe does not only require a careful and mature approach but also mutual understanding and patience because of its complexity."
The Zimbabwean government described its proposed suspension as an international campaign by Britain and the opposition party MDC to isolate Zimbabwe. However, MDC spokesman Welshman Ncube did not perceive the failed suspension from Commonwealth as a factor that would influence the situation in Zimbabwe in the troubled preparations for elections.
The government-owned newspaper 'The Herald' today commented "yesterday's outcome was an embarrassment to British foreign policy," and that it "was a second blow in as many days after Britain's attempts to have the European Union impose sanctions on Zimbabwe were dashed." The newspaper took great pleasure in the racial divide within the Commonwealth, claiming it affirmed an earlier warning by President Mugabe "that Britain's moves could result in a split into a black commonwealth and a white commonwealth."
The British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, yesterday admitted his disappointment, stating the meeting had "achieved less than we hoped, but more than we expected". He however added that the meeting had laid down "most concrete benchmarks by which the Zimbabwe elections are able to take place to make them as free and fair as possible."
According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), the bill "contains a number of unconstitutional provisions." This view has also been expressed by several MPs of the governing ZANU-PF, thus deadlocking the bill's approval so far. MP Edison Zvobgo earlier this week tabled a report on the bill, declaring 21 sections of the proposed legislation unconstitutional.
Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa, however told the Zimbabwean Parliament that the amended version of the bill was to achieve a parliamentary majority. Mr Zvobgo had agreed to "withdraw the adverse report and then make a new report on the consolidated text," The Herald quoted Chinamasa saying.
Reuters news agency however reports that it has seen a copy of the revised bill and claims it "appeared little changed from the previous version and would still restrict access for foreign reporters and force local journalists to get yearly accreditation from a state commission".
Yesterday afternoon, three journalists were arrested in Harare, Zimbabwe, following a demonstration outside Parliament where the controversial bill was being discussed. The journalists were arrested when armed police officers set loose on the crowd. Approximately 50 journalists attended the demonstration, organised by MISA-Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwean Union of Journalists (ZUJ), most of them from the independent media.
If the media bill were to be accepted, it would contradict promises given by President Mugabe at a SADC summit two weeks ago. Mugabe there assured his fellow Southern African presidents of his "commitment to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the constitution of Zimbabwe," and reaffirmed the "practice of allowing national and international journalists to cover important national events, including elections."
The recent statements by SADC ministers, sanctions against Zimbabwe were out of the question, however seem to have reassured Mugabe to push through with the media bill.