Police raided the offices of the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe on Tuesday to search for allegedly subversive material, detaining and questioning its director, Andrew Moyse, for several hours at the Harare Central Police Station before releasing him.
Press freedom advocates saw in the incident an extension of an official crackdown on independent media that has been developing in recent weeks.
The incident followed the arrest on Monday in Gwanda, Matabeleland South province, of MMPZ advocacy officers Fadzai December and Molly Chimhanda, and the chairman of the group's public information rights forum committee chairman, Gilbert Mabusa.
All three remained in custody in Gwanda late Tuesday. Sources said they faced charges under the Public Order and Security Act and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, in connection with a civic education meeting held late last month in the area.
December, Chimhanda and Mabusa are accused of "participating in a gathering with intent to promote public violence [and] breaches of the peace."
Reached following his release, Moyse said police questioned him about 127 digital video disks his organization had produced, mainly to promote a more tolerant media.
Police said they were looking for materials related to the Gukurahundi conflict in Matabeleland in the 1980s when rival liberation factions led by then-Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, clashed, leading to deployment of a special brigade to the minority Ndebele-speaking region with massacres of civilians.
The Gukurahundi, a Shona word meaning "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains," was for decades a taboo subject in Zimbabwe, but in the past few years various Matabeleland movements have focused new attention on it.
Moyse said the DVDs produced by his group contained no information on Gukurahundi and primarily called upon the media to contribute to peaceful elections through fair, accurate and balanced coverage of election campaigns by the media.
Moyse said police obliged him to make a statement about his organization's activities. He said he believed the statement would be used against his colleagues held in Gwanda.
Moyse said the DVD contained a message for the people. "The message urges the people to encourage the media to practice political tolerance, restraint and particularly to condemn violence especially during election period.”
MMPZ Advocacy Coordinator Dzikamai Machingura said the discs, distributed at a November 24 workshop in Gwanda, had footage taken from news programs shown by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, which was in the public domain.
The arrests of the MMPZ officials follow those of four practicing journalists in recent weeks, all on charges of criminal defamation related to articles they published.
Non-governmental organizations and the Movement for Democratic Change formation of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai condemned the police actions and called for an end to the arrests of journalists and civil society members by state security agents.
Zimbabwe Human Rights Association Director Okay Machisa said he is concerned to see the free media space "really dwindling day in day out." One of the main tasks assigned to the unity government by the 2008 Global Political Agreement for power sharing was liberalization of the media, but progress has failed to live up to expectations.