Zimbabwe: church leaders denounce state media control

 Zimbabwe's seven Catholic bishops on Sunday denounced state media control, while ecumenical Christian groups called for outright defiance of planned laws curbing charity work in the impoverished African country - the South African News 24 service reported yesterday. The bishops sent a pastoral letter to churches on Sunday demanding a "credible electoral process" and peaceful campaigning ahead of March elections. And they warned against propaganda, favouritism and discrimination against dissenters, including the main opposition party. In a separate move also seen as a crackdown on dissent, the government proposed criminalising charity work done without a government permit, and banning charities and private groups focusing on "issues of human rights and good governance" from receiving foreign funding. The bill comes before parliament today. "It is important that all political parties have access to media coverage so that they can inform citizens about how they intend to govern if they are elected," said the bishops. Information minister Jonathan Moyo said the government would deny media access to the "disloyal" opposition, and ignore Southern African Development Community rules on election conduct, the state-run Sunday Mail reported. "When a political party has no loyalty, then it should not expect to be treated fairly," the paper quoted Moyo as saying. "Unless and until we have a loyal opposition, it will not be possible for them to have access to the public media." International observers have rejected the ruling party's victories in the 2000 parliamentary election and 2002 presidential election as illegitimate, citing widespread allegations of rigging and intimidation. Christian groups say the government's new efforts to limit charity work jeopardise crucial relief work in the country, where the United Nations says about two million people may need food aid before March. Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo has accused Mugabe of planning to use food to buy votes. The Christian groups urged Zimbabweans to reject them proposed bill, calling it a "vain attempt by the ruling party to usurp the place of God." "If what we do in obedience to our Christian calling makes us criminals in Zimbabwe, so be it," said a joint statement signed by the Bulawayo diocesan branch of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and two inter-church bodies - Christians Together for Justice and Peace, and Solidarity Peace Trust. "This bill has a deeply sinister purpose, to disable all NGO's which the ruling party perceives to represent a threat to their continuing brutal hold to power," it said. The government has said food aid is unnecessary, due to a bumper 2.4 million maize crop this year. UN agencies say, however, the harvest yielded less than 900 000 tons. Sources: News24 S/SACBC/Sunday Mail

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