How inflation will kill Zimbabwean reporting

For the last several years, two things have helped keep the world informed of goings on inside Zimbabwe: the Internet, and mobile phones. Reports of protests, violence, and cholera have leaked over the borders through text messages and conversations with relatives abroad -- especially in South Africa.

Now, mobile phone companies will start charging customers in dollars in hopes of avoiding the burn from 231 million percent inflation (the country just intoduced a $50 billion note). That means the 94 percent of Zimbabweans who aren't employed will struggle to pay.

And reports will stop leaking out.

The world already struggles to find out what's really going on inside Robert Mugabe's police state. The local media has it rough. As Reporters without Borders put it in their 2008 report, "Since 2002, the daily lot of Zimbabwean journalists has consisted of permanent surveillance, police brutality and injustice." Foreign journalists rarely brave it (or are allowed) inside.

Not helping matters, on Jan. 9, Zimbabwe imposed new fees on all journalists -- between $1,000 and $3,000 for accreditation of local journalists, and $30,000 for foreigners. A temporary foreigner can get in for the bargain price of $1,500. Quite simply, "What it means is that they will no longer be able to report," Human Rights Watch analyst Tiseke Kasambala told me.

Perversly enough in both cases, it is Mugabe who is yet again cashing in. Journalist fees will go straight to the government And the country's reserve bank, says Kasambala, has been buying dollars on the black market. "They're making huge killings on the exchange rate." Add the press to the casualty list.



The revolving door of Japanese politics keeps on spinning

If you're looking for job security, you probably don’t want to run for prime minister of Japan. Prime Minister Taro Aso’s government is once again under threat, following former Japanese minister Yoshimi Watanabe’s resignation from the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has governed Japan with few interruptions since 1955. Watanabe's move comes at a time when Prime Minister Taro Aso is experiencing levels of unpopularity that would shock even President Bush, with approval ratings below 20 percent.

Ever since 2006, Japan has seen a revolving door of Prime Ministers. Shinzo Abe and Yasuo Fukuda each held the top position for about a year before anemic approval ratings, LDP electoral losses, and legislative paralysis forced them from office. Watanabe’s maneuver is meant to force Aso to call snap elections, instead of waiting for the general elections scheduled for September. A group of Watanabe-led LDP legislators could join the opposition in blocking legislation in the lower house of Parliament, paralyzing Aso's ability to govern. If he succeeds, Prime Minister Aso will likely follow the path of his two successors.

The legacy of Junichiro Koizumi, who served as Japan's Prime Minister from 2001 to 2006, weighs heavily on his successors. Japanese politics had historically been controlled by Japan's traditional political families working within the internal factions of the LDP; Koizumi changed all that by taking his case directly to the Japanese voters. With Japan's preeminent status in Asia threatened by an enduring economic recession and China's rising power, none of the post-Koizumi leaders have been able to gain the public's trust in a similar way.

"Koizumi was committed to serious, structural reforms, and no other Prime Minister has made that sort of connection with the Japanese public," the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons told me.

The good news is that Japan's opposition is gaining enough strength to challenge the LDP, which could mean a new crop of leaders and ideas. Faced with a daunting set of challenges, that could be exactly what Japan needs.

Photo: Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images