JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Ahead of a presidential election expected next year, Zimbabwe's government has declared virtual war on the media — labeling some reporters terrorists, expelling several foreign journalists and refusing to let most others in.

Dozens of local reporters have been arrested by police and beaten by ruling party militants.

Proposed legislation would ban all foreign reporters from Zimbabwe and expand the government's power to arrest journalists it does not like.

"We are treating Zimbabwe as a war zone," said Zoe Titus, an official at the Media Institute of Southern Africa, which campaigns for press freedom.

The government also has said it would ban election monitors from "unfriendly" countries.

Titus accused President Robert Mugabe of seeking an "information blackout" that would allow his government and its supporters free rein to intensify their campaign of intimidation and violence before the election, which is expected in March.

Human-rights workers accuse the government of trying to frighten people away from voting for the opposition, which poses the strongest threat to Mugabe's rule since he led the country to independence in 1980.

Presidential spokesman George Charamba did not return repeated calls from The Associated Press this week. The government has refused requests from many foreign reporters to enter Zimbabwe. Officials have described previous attempts at regulating the media as aimed at making sure reporters act responsibly.

The crackdown on journalists has coincided with government threats against opposition officials and some judges.

In the election, Mugabe will face Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai, whose party won 57 of 120 elected parliamentary seats last year after an election campaign rife with political violence, mainly blamed on ruling party militants.

Mugabe tightened his government's clampdown on journalists earlier this year, warning foreign reporters to keep their "dirty, interfering hands" out of Zimbabwe's affairs.

An anonymous presidential spokesman, quoted in the state-owned Herald newspaper last month, accused journalists who reported on an attack by ruling party militants against whites and opposition officials of aiding the "terrorist" opposition.

"We would like (reporters) to know that we agree with U.S. President Bush that anyone who in any way finances, harbors or defends terrorists is himself a terrorist," the spokesman said.

A week later, details of Zimbabwe's proposed Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill were revealed.

The bill would require journalists to get an annual license from a government-appointed panel. The legislation also allows the government to ban foreign reporters from the country and imprison journalists who violate as-yet unspecified standards.

"It's a fascist piece of legislation," said Basildon Peta, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists and special projects editor of the independent Financial Gazette. "It's in my opinion, the final nail in the coffin of the media of Zimbabwe."

But it is only the latest nail.

Just this year, the journalists' union has recorded more than 40 cases of reporters from Zimbabwe's five independent newspapers being attacked by ruling party thugs or being arrested by police.

Many independent journalists are too frightened to report on political violence in the countryside, Peta said.

The government has deported three foreign correspondents, banned the British Broadcasting Corp. and implemented regulations forcing foreign reporters to get accreditation before entering Zimbabwe. It also passed legislation effectively banning independent radio stations, thereby preserving the government's monopoly on disseminating news to rural areas.

The Daily News, the most popular newspaper in the country and the only independent daily, has perhaps suffered the most.

Its printing press was destroyed in a bombing January after the government called the paper a threat to national security. The paper continued printing — in greatly reduced numbers — on other presses.

Daily News reporters have been beaten or detained; editor Geoff Nyarota was arrested twice, but charges were quickly dismissed.

"It's an ongoing campaign of harassment," Nyarota said. "Journalists can't run away from their work because the government has become hostile. We have an obligation to our readers, an obligation to the public, an obligation to our country."

Yet Peta, with a wife and two children, is not sure how much danger he is willing to endure for his ideals.

"It's not always advisable to be a dead hero," he said.