Two senior MDC-T officials, Tendai Biti and Nelson Chamisa, have been criticized by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) for allegedly making threats to sue the Zimbabwe Independent, over a story it published claiming the two were involved in a serious 'bust-up' last week.
The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper claimed Biti, who is the party's secretary-general, 'fiercely clashed' with Chamisa, the organizing secretary, at a standing committee meeting over primary election application forms. MPs Tabitha Khumalo and Albert Mhlanga also reportedly exchanged blows as intra-party fighting rages on.
The paper claimed: "The ministers' fight" was seen as part of a wider MDC-T factional and succession battle, as Biti and Chamisa are allegedly ensconced in two warring camps."
But the MDC-T denied the report as false saying it was "clearly written with the evil intentions of causing mayhem, discontent, and despondency within the MDC family," ahead of elections.
Biti and Chamisa also put up a united front at a press conference in Harare on Tuesday, dismissing the newspaper's story as 'hurtful and 'fiction'.
Chamisa is quoted as saying the party had instructed its lawyers to take measures against the journalist who wrote the story and the publication itself.
VMCZ chairman Alec Muchadehama said: "While it remains the legal right of these two leaders of the MDC-T to do so, it is unfortunate that they have joined the undemocratic tendency by politicians and influential people in Zimbabwean society to issue veiled threats against the media.
"It is a tendency that has in general led to the arrests of many media professionals for merely doing their work in the public interest. It is also a habit that has regrettably led to an unfortunate and repressive but broad culture of criminalizing freedom of expression and media freedom in Zimbabwe."
Chamisa disagreed with the VMCZ statement saying there had to be a retraction of a 'false story' that was attributed to 'unknown sources'.
He told SW Radio Africa: "What we want is a retraction, given the same prominence, and if that fails we also have rights in as much as we respect the rights of those people who wrote those malicious statements. So we should not look at rights from one side."
Chamisa denied threatening the media, saying they merely made a 'polite request'.
The minister said his party was also fighting for democracy and balanced unbiased reporting: "A certain wrong was committed against us and we feel that as people who fight for democracy justice is supposed to be on both sides.
"In as much as we respect the individual rights of anybody to write about anybody they should not write fiction," Chamisa added.
The Zimbabwe Independent editor-in-chief, Vincent Kahiya, refused to comment saying: "I will only comment if I see a formal letter from the MDC wanting us to either retract or suing us."
When asked if the paper still stands by its story, Kahiya responded by reiterating that his paper will wait for an official document from the MDC indicating their intention to sue "and when we see those papers we will make an appropriate reaction."
Journalists at the Zimbabwe Independent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said both Biti and Chamisa had called the newspaper and threatened to sue if there was no retraction. The journalists said they stood by their story.
Muchadehama deplored threats against the media and said there are mechanisms through which policy makers or public figures can seek fair redress from media houses, if they feel aggrieved by a story, such as seeking a right of reply from the media organization and also pursuing the matter with the Media Complaints Committee of the VMCZ . He said the latter would be at "no legal cost to themselves nor with the threat of the arrest or cumbersome lawsuits of media professionals."
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe dropped 16 places to number 133 out of 179 countries on the World Press Freedom Index report released by the France-based Reporters Without Borders. Zimbabwe, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Swaziland are the only countries from Southern Africa who are below 130.
Activist Mike Davies said: "The press freedom index does not take into account the quality of reporting. We need a 'freedom from bad journalism index', for that and I am sure Zimbabwe would be in the lower third there as well."