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President Robert Mugabe has signed into law amendments to media, security and electoral legislation ahead of elections scheduled in March, the official media reported Saturday.
The amendments were negotiated in talks - which have since deadlocked - between the ruling party and the opposition but have been criticised by civic groups as not going far enough to pave the way for free and fair polling.
The state Herald newspaper, a government mouthpiece, said changes to sweeping media controls and security laws came into immediate effect after the release of an official government notice.
The changes ease requirements for police clearance on political rallies, frequently used in the past to ban opposition meetings. In future only courts will have the power to disallow political activities on security grounds.
The amendment will be put to the test on Wednesday when the opposition Movement for Democratic Change plans to hold a march and rally in Harare that it has dubbed the Freedom Walk.
Opposition officials have informed police of the plans to hold the event, but already the state media has accused the opposition of taking a confrontational stance after months of negotiations with the ruling party on political reforms.
Police have not commented on the march or its possible security risks.
South African President Thabo Mbeki, the chief mediator in the negotiations, visited Harare on Thursday for talks with Mugabe and opposition leaders that ended inconclusively.
Mbeki told reporters in Harare that work was still in progress on what he called outstanding 'impediments.'
South African mediators have insisted on a news blackout on the talks and uncharacteristically Mugabe refused to comment to state television on Thursday in a brief news report in which he appeared terse and irritated.
The opposition has insisted further constitutional reforms are put in place before polling in March but the government argues there isn't enough time to meet all the opposition demands.
Mugabe and ruling party leaders have repeatedly declared the elections will not be delayed to June.
In changes to the media laws, a new licensing authority for journalists known as the Zimbabwe Media Commission is to be formed and some licensing rules are to be slightly eased.
Foreign journalists have routinely been denied visas and state media accreditation to visit Zimbabwe on assignment and independent media groups say that, too, will be put to the test in coming weeks.
The electoral amendments provide for opposition lawmakers to nominate some members of the state Electoral Commission running the polling.
Critics of those changes say the commission will still be heavily weighted in favour of the government and ruling party and the rules do not guarantee the presence of independent foreign election observers.
Mugabe insists only visiting observers from 'friendly progressive nations' will be permitted to monitor polling, effectively excluding monitors from former colonial power Britain, the European Union or the United States. (AP)
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