The United States on Wednesday protested against the wave of arrests in Zimbabwe of journalists and civic activists.
Andrew Moyse, head of an independent press watchdog group, the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, was freed on bail late Tuesday after police raided his offices and seized CDs and DVDs alleged to contain subversive material. Three of his staff in western Zimbabwe who were arrested Monday remained in custody, according to AP.
The new crackdown on the media by President Robert Mugabe's regime includes the arrests of four other independent journalists since Nov. 15.
The U.S. embassy statement highlights that many in Zimbabwe believe the arrests signal a new round of repression by Mugabe's regime. The US embassy in Harare criticized the selective targeting of media figures. The embassy statement said this is an "important year" in Zimbabwe for constitutional and electoral reforms meant to guarantee free expression after years of sweeping media curbs enforced by Mugabe and his loyalist police and security forces.
The embassy said the latest round of arrests went against terms of a coalition agreement between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the former opposition leader, that committed their parties to "a free and unfettered media and civil society" essential for future political and economic development."
The embassy statement called on the coalition to uphold the rule of law without bias.
None of the group's material mentioned the rebellion and only called for tolerance, fair political campaigning and an end to "hate speech" commonly reported in the Zimbabwe media, Moyse told the AP on Wednesday.
On Monday, three monitoring group staff were detained in the western Zimbabwe town of Gwanda after police alleged they held an illegal political gathering there that was not approved by authorities under the nation's sweeping security laws.
The media monitoring project denied it was an illegal meeting and said the officials met with local group members as part of a civic education campaign calling for fair and balanced reporting on elections proposed next year.
The three staff were also charged under a separate law prohibiting meetings held "with intent to promote public violence, breaches of the peace or bigotry."
Later Wednesday, a magistrate in the western town of Gwanda refused to free Moyse's three staff members on bail and ordered them to stay in the town's prison until another hearing scheduled Friday.
Two are women aged in their 20s whom state prosecutors said "are still of a young and impressionable age" and would likely abscond if given bail.
Moyse, 61, a veteran journalist, said his junior staffers, in police hands for the first time, were "terrified" by jail conditions in Gwanda and their harsh treatment by police and prison officers ahead of Friday's resumed bail hearing.
The media monitoring organization said there were no grounds for any arrests of officials or members of the legally registered media campaigning group which also circulates research and public statements on bias and imbalances in both the state and independent media in Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition of pro-democracy groups condemned the latest arrests as "outrageous" and said they signaled the beginning of a crackdown on the media and civic activists similar to those that have preceded past elections. More arrests could be expected, it said, concluding that "Journalists must be allowed to do their work without hindrance from law enforcement agents."