BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, May 3 (Reuters) A clampdown on the media in Zimbabwe has blocked the free flow of information and contributed to the country's economic decline, the top U.S. diplomat in Harare said today.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell has clashed with President Robert Mugabe's government over the past year and last November said gross state mismanagement and corrupt rule had plunged the former British colony into crisis.
In a speech to journalism students in the southern city of Bulawayo marking World Press Freedom Day, Dell said Zimbabwe was the ''glaring exception'' among southern African countries that were exploiting ''the relationships between civil liberties and economic development''.
''With growing freedom of the press and the advance of other civil liberties, the rest of the region is growing faster economically. Sadly Zimbabwe is the exception that in this case proves the rule,'' Dell said, drawing applause from the students.
Zimbabwe is in its eighth year of recession and has contracted by over 40 per cent since 1999, leaving the population grappling with high unemployment of over 85 per cent, soaring commodity prices and persistent electricity and water cuts.
Inflation has risen to the highest rate in the world at 913.6 per cent, and private economists predict a contraction this year despite government growth forecasts of 1-2 per cent.
ECONOMY IN DOWNWARD SPIRAL ''It is undeniable that Zimbabwe's economy is in a downward spiral unmatched by any other country not at war,'' Dell said.
''Look behind nearly every economic dysfunction in this country ... and you will likely find some impediment to a free flow of information or the freedom to act on that information.'' Mugabe's government came under the international spotlight after enacting tough media laws in 2002 which have seen the closure of four private newspapers critical of the state.
The laws also bar foreigners from working permanently as journalists in Zimbabwe and have seen dozens of newspeople arrested and hauled before courts mainly on charges of writing ''falsehoods''.
Rights group Freedom House ranks Zimbabwe at a lowly 153 on a world list of countries that respect press freedom.
''(This is) not surprising, in view of the continued closure of independent dailies, harassment and growing legal controls on journalists and a strictly enforced government monopoly on broadcast media,'' Dell said.
Relations between the United States and Zimbabwe have soured in recent years, with Washington accusing Mugabe's government of rigging parliamentary and presidential elections since 2000, and human rights abuses.
Harare denies the charge and says the U.S. and former colonial ruler Britain are out to topple Mugabe's government mainly over its seizure of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution among blacks, a programme critics say has destroyed agriculture, partially causing chronic food shortages over the last six years.
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