Zimbabwe eases foreign media restrictions

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TsvangiraiThe British Broadcasting Corp. has resumed broadcasting from Zimbabwe for the first time since it was banned in 2001 and the five-month-old coalition government said it also was considering allowing CNN back.

Despite the signs that the government is serious about media reforms, former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s party continues to complain about ill-treatment and harassment by followers of President Robert Mugabe.

Tendai Biti, a top aide to Tsvangirai and finance minister in the coalition, reported this week that he had been mailed a package containing a bullet and an unsigned message advising him to prepare his will.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai, now prime minister, formed their coalition Feb. 13 in an agreement that called for the lifting of media restrictions and guarantees of freedom of expression and association.

The BBC said in a statement late Wednesday it was “pleased at the prospect of being able to operate openly in Zimbabwe once again. We will now be applying to run a bureau there in the normal way.” It said correspondent Andrew Harding was free to report openly when he broadcast his first reports Wednesday.

The information ministry said it also was talking with CNN to pave the way for the return of the U.S.-based network.

In recent years of political and economic turmoil, most Western organizations had been refused government licenses to report from Zimbabwe. Correspondents from the BBC and other media have acknowledged reporting clandestinely from Zimbabwe, at times entering on tourist visas.

The BBC opened one of its Zimbabwe broadcasts Thursday morning with what it described as old hidden camera video from the days it reported surreptitiously.

“Inevitably, part of the story becomes how our teams are trying to avoid being found and arrested, rather than focusing on the people of Zimbabwe,” the BBC’s world news editor, Jon Williams, said in a blog on the BBC site about resuming reporting in Zimbabwe. “Operating illegally and clandestinely has to be a last resort. So I’m pleased that we’ve been assured by the Zimbabwe government that the BBC is not banned, and that we can resume our operations in Zimbabwe.”

The former government accused Western reporters of bias that began over reports of human rights violations in the often violent seizures of thousands of white-owned commercial farms in 2000. The seizures disrupted the agriculture-based economy.

Independent local newspapers, meanwhile, were closed down and their journalists arrested, assaulted and harassed.

Information Minister Webster Shamu said his talks with both the BBC and CNN “cleared matters and provided a basis for a sustainable relationship of trust and mutual benefit,” he said.

The government has proposed the news organizations employ Zimbabweans in local offices but the networks would not be prevented from sending news crews into the country if required.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.