Like the nation's transition from one-party rule to a broad democracy, the course of press freedom in Zimbabwe has been a slow, frustrating and difficult one. President Robert Mugabe keeps a tight hold on the press through state-sponsored media in his country, where independent voices are few. Those who speak out are often harassed, arbitrarily arrested or otherwise intimidated.
This was to have changed under the Global Political Agreement adopted in 2008 to end the nation's long-running political crisis. An independent Zimbabwe Media Commission was established to reform the sector by registering and licensing divergent new media voices. No such voices have been heard, however, because the panel has been starved for funds.
New worries emerged when it was announced that Mugabe's former press-control enforcer will be the media commission's chief executive. Tafataona Mahoso won't be a commission member himself, but in his new post he likely will run its daily operations and its dealings with the media. As Mugabe's former Media and Information Commission chairman, Mahoso shutdown far more newspapers than he licensed to operate.
The United States has long encouraged Zimbabwe to accept diverse and plural voices in the media to facilitate the free flow of information and promote debate, and it will continue to do so. The free flow of information is crucial in a democracy, and can be a powerful force for understanding and positive change.
The experience of other countries shows that government-controlled media can exist, and even compete, with an independent press if it has a compelling message. Under the GPA, Mugabe agreed to allow such competition, and it is time that he keeps his word. We hope the recent announcement of new licenses for print media is a genuine step in the direction of urgently-needed press freedom in Zimbabwe.