Media freedom campaigners said Friday police in Zimbabwe are breaking the law by seizing and banning small radio receivers that can tune in to stations not linked to the state broadcasting monopoly controlled by President Robert Mugabe's party.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa said Friday no regulations outlaw the hand-cranked, solar powered radios that democracy and election support groups plan to use ahead of a referendum on a new constitution next month and crucial elections later in the year. Police insist the radios and cheap Chinese 3G smartphones with GPS capability are being supplied by "subversive organizations" and pose a security threat surrounding the polling.
The media group said any broadcast receiver only requires a routine listeners' license, and the police action was a grave threat to active and informed participation in upcoming voting.
"The importance of a radio set cannot be overemphasized as it is a generally affordable legal gadget used for receiving information by the public," the group said.
Police efforts to "criminalize the distribution and possession of the radio sets" infringed citizens constitutional rights to freedom of expression and basic civil liberties," it said.
Such radios and other equipment were seized in recent police raids on the Zimbabwe Peace Project, a human rights group that monitors political violence, and the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network.
Police allege those and other groups were planning to mobilize "recruits" with unauthorized communications devices in rural districts across the country, traditionally voting strongholds of Mugabe's party.
The Elton Microlink radio, at a cost of about $30, has channels able to receive Voice of America broadcasts beamed in from neighboring Botswana and shortwave broadcasts on Zimbabwe from Europe.
The state Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corp. has four radio stations fiercely loyal to Mugabe. State and independent newspapers are not commonly found in impoverished rural districts where communities rely for information on radios only receiving state radio and powered by batteries that are often in short supply.
Police warned this week that the activities of some Western-backed non-governmental organizations and rights groups now verged on espionage. People found in remote areas with the cited devices could face arrest.
They said the "specially designed radios are not compatible with state-owned radio stations" and could inflame election tensions by promoting hate speech.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's party in a shaky coalition with Mugabe since the last violent and disputed polls in 2008 accused the state broadcaster of bias against it and blamed all media controlled by Mugabe loyalists for using hate speech against his opponents.
Penalties of a small fine for receiving satellite television, widely popular in Zimbabwe, and worldwide shortwave radio programs are only imposed if no annually-issued radio or television license is held. Receiving equipment cannot be seized.
The independent Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights reported in a separate statement Friday what it called a sustained and escalating assault on groups involved in civic education, human rights monitoring and public outreach programs.
The clampdown was likely to intimidate ordinary people into shunning civic groups working in local communities for fear of police threats.
The lawyers called for "sanity to prevail and a reduction of the hysteria and paranoia currently characterizing the state and its institutions and actors."