Is Zimbabwe's media really freeing up?

In recent weeks the number of journalists in Zimbabwe arrested has increased

There is a greater sense of media freedom in Zimbabwe, though this may not signal a change in the political climate, writes the BBC's Karen Allen.

The rain arrives quickly in Harare. A newspaper seller on the corner of Samora Machel street gathers his wares in his arms and dives for shelter.

A trickle of customers follow him. Alongside The Herald - the state daily - sits a new privately owned tabloid - News Day.

It describes itself as non partisan and is one of four independent newspapers to receive a licence in the past six months.

President Robert Mugabe, March 2010 President Robert Mugabe has had a frosty relationship with the foreign media for several years

Despite this nod towards liberalisation, as stipulated in the power-sharing deal between Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), News Day is the only newcomer operating.

The Daily News, the first private newspaper which was closed down by the government more than seven years ago, has yet to make it back onto the streets although its licence has been re-issued.

The greater choice of newspapers is felt most keenly in urban areas.

This is tamer political territory for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai's MDC.

'Media hangman'

But in Headlands - a swathe of villages just off the road between Mutare and Harare - newspapers rarely make an appearance.

Start Quote

If I listen on my headphones, nobody knows. It's my secret”

End Quote Resident of Headlands

Radio, or more accurately state radio, is the main source of news.

A queue of private broadcasters is waiting in the wings for licences to be granted.

People speak in hushed tones here.

This is Zanu-PF territory and many are reluctant to criticise.

Yet one woman I spoke to, a bright mother of four with a mouth shaped into a permanent smile, confided that the radio on her mobile phone sometimes picked up signals from stations beyond Zimbabwe's borders.

"If I listen on my headphones, nobody knows," she whispers, "It's my secret."

While Zimbabwe's Information Minister Webster Shamu has made optimistic noises that broadcasting licences will be issued soon, he has been flatly contradicted in recent weeks by President Robert Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba.

Zanu-PF supporters, Harare, 2010 Foreign media at the Zanu-PF gathering were feted as guests

He says they need more ways to monitor and regulate private operators.

The appointment of Jonathan Moyo onto Zanu-PF's top table - the politburo - does not inspire confidence that the airwaves will be open soon.

While some consider him a brilliant strategist, others describe him as a "media hangman".

He is credited in the past with ushering in some of the most repressive legislation to curtail press freedom.

After a spell away from the party - he is now back - and with elections expected next year - the timing is perhaps no co-incidence.

'Unstoppable mission'

As foreigners reporting from the Zanu-PF conference you would expect us to be treated as "the enemy".

Zimbabweans read copies of the state owned Herald newspaper on the streets of Harare 3 December 2010 Newspapers are readily available in towns, but not in the countryside

But in characteristic African gesture of hospitality we were feted as guests.

People came to chat or hand over bottles of "Zanu-PF water" - mineral water with a picture of the party leader emblazoned on the plastic bottle.

Even something as elemental as water cannot escape politics here.

The conference was a battle cry to the party faithful - goading them on ahead of expected elections next year.

President Mugabe, looking fit and in fighting mood, called for the "indigenisation" of foreign firms, enabling the state to take a majority stake in big corporations. A familiar refrain.

And the words thundered by Simon Khaya Moyo, the chairman of the party, captured the tone. Zanu-PF is on an "unstoppable mission".

I wondered how far the party would be prepared to go given the experience of the last bloody elections two years ago.

Chilling copy

In recent weeks the newspapers have been filled with stories about the alleged recruitment of war veterans to strategic posts ahead of elections.

A man reads a copy of the Independent Standard newspaper on the streets of Harare, 13 December 2010 Diamonds are now a no go topic of conversation

There have been reports too claiming that heads of the security services will "only accept a Zanu-PF win". Chilling copy. Stories that have landed reporters in jail.

About an hour's drive from the conference lies the diamond rich area of Chiadzwa - a no go area for journalists.

It has been tainted by allegations of plunder and human right abuses. Claims that the party denies.

A resident from this diamond desert agreed to meet us discretely.

He spoke of the police and military patrols who continue to stalk the areas, of the people forced to stay indoors from 1800 and of the gang rapes of women who refuse to comply with their rules.

There is no way to independently verify this man's ghastly testimony.

Chiadzwa is a militarised zone, but his story is consistent with reports that diamonds are being used as a weapon of control.

Zimbabwe's President, Robert Mugabe, tells the BBC of his desire to remain in power

A resource which save for a handful of secretive companies, is being manipulated by Zimbabwe's "securocrats" - the military, police and intelligence services, to stay in power claim human rights groups

The discovery of diamonds has been "a gift from god" declares President Mugabe. It could be his salvation.

A Zimbabwean newspaper just last week reported a Wikileaks cable - published around the world - which implicated the first lady Grace Mugabe and a handful of others in allegedly benefiting from illicit diamond deals. Something they deny.

The mood has swiftly changed and the lawsuits have begun. One paper is being sued for $15m (£9,7m).

Diamonds are a no go topic of conversation and it seems the drive towards greater media freedom or glasnost African style - has ground to a shuddering halt.

The next few months will be the litmus test for media freedom.

If newspapers like News Day continue to offer diversity right through until election day, Zimbabwe will have advanced considerably.

But if journalists are increasingly threatened, harassed and jailed, Zimbabwe will have slide back into its old ways.

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