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HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwe on Thursday threatened a crackdown on the media over what it called sensational and inaccurate reporting, following stories over the health of 88-year-old President Robert Mugabe.
However critics said the warning from the country's information ministry, controlled by Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, could be an attempt to intimidate journalists ahead of elections expected next year.
Senior ZANU-PF officials last month were forced to issue statements dismissing reports that Mugabe was seriously ill in Singapore, saying the stories were lies meant to destabilize Zimbabwe.
Addressing journalists at an event to mark World Press Freedom Day on Thursday, information minister Webster Shamu said: "If the clearly anti-African and anti-Zimbabwe frenzy we have experienced through some media outlets and platforms in this country continues, and if the conspiracy of silence within the media industry and profession also persists, the gloves may soon be off here as well."
Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing deal with his rival and now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, after a disputed 2008 poll which Western powers said was marred by ZANU-PF violence and intimidation.
Under the terms of the deal, elections must be held by next year.
Brian Mangwende, chairman of the Zimbabwe National Editors' Forum, said of Shamu's remarks: "He must be under pressure from those ZANU-PF ministers who want to tame the media before we get to the next elections.
"I hope he has no reason to take off his gloves for a fight with the media."
The MDC accuses Shamu and Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba of stalling reforms to open up Zimbabwe's state-run television and radio broadcasting to the private sector.
Mugabe has ruled the country since its independence from Britain in 1980. The president has been the subject of several newspaper health stories in recent years, with some reports saying he has prostate cancer.
In interviews with state media in February he laughed off suggestions he was seriously ill.
Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Pravin Char