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Zimbabwe newspaper takeover casts shadow

The Zimbabwe government's takeover of the country's only major newspaper chain has cast a shadow over the future of free enterprise in this newly independent African country and raised fears about the possibility of a one-party state.

Prime Minister Robert Mugabe's chief rival, Joshua Nkomo, has decried the move, saying that his comments could be his last utterances in the domestic media.

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The move by the Mugabe government to end a South African press group's financial control over Zimbabwe's five most important newspapers will almost certainly cause further uneasiness, too, among the small white community. Some whites here feel they will be forced to flee if the government moves vigorously against free enterprise, such as by taking over rich farmlands, which are predominantly in the hands of white farmers.

It is the first move against free enterprise since Mr. Mugabe came to power eight months ago and aroused concern about press freedom and the possibility of further state takeovers.

The official reason for the government's move was to end a South African press group's financial control over Zimbabwe's major papers.

There has been no quibbling about the purchase of the South African shareholdings, which is in keeping with the Mugabe government's policy of severing links with its white-ruled neighbor.

But the fine print of the deal and the government's press record suggest to many a more sinister underlying motive. The 40 percent South African press holding, purchased with the aid of a Nigerian grant, is to be entrusted to a recently established mass media trust whose directors are to be appointed by the Zimbabwe government.

While the administration promises not to interfere in the running of the trust, its directors are certain to be officials or supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party. This alone will give the government enormous leverage.

Critics, including Joshua Nkomo, leader of the rival Patriotic Front Party, say that the government's past performance in the media field suggests that the newspapers will be used for partisan purposes.

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Since independence, many here believe ZANU-PF appointees have run the state-controlled radio and television services as propaganda arms of the ruling party. Anything negative about the rival Patriotic Front has been given indepth coverage while proven acts of violence or brigandry by ZANU-PF guerrillas or supporters tend to have been ignored.

Some of the newspapers being taken over have been even more forthright."Zimbabwe's press is going the same way as the press in the rest of Africa," said one, while another opined gloomily: "The prospects for other freedoms, including democracy itself, are not secure."

Most analysts believe it would be a pity if fettering the press was the thin edge of the wedge, since Mr. Mugabe is regarded as having exercised power wisely since winning office.

Private enterprise, with the exception of the newspapers, has not been touched. No farms belonging, to whites have been taken over by force and, perhaps most important of all, whites from all walks of life are being urged to stay on.

But in other African states, controlling the press has often been the precursor of the formation of one-party states, and the concern is that Zimbabwe may be no exception to the rule.

At the moment, a Cabinet reshuffle reportedly is being planned, and Mr. Nkomo , as head of the largest black opposition party, is expected to lose his home affairs portfolio in the coalition administration.

If that happens, the last vestige of real power outside the ruling party will disappear, and it would seem only a matter of time before the coalition itself breaks up. Total power and an unfettered press might well delight ZANU-PF officials and supporters. But it probably wont't make governing Zimbabwe any easier.

The Zimbabwe government's venture into press control coincides with the report of a commission of inquiry into the press in Ghana, another African country where absolute power and a controlled press have gone hand-in-hand for two decades.

"As Ghana's recent history demonstrates," says the report, "a docile, compliant press does not breed a docile nation. On the contrary, it breeds revulsion with poten tially dangerous consequences."

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