HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) _ Zimbabwe's autocratic ruler gave his compatriots a stark message in a nationwide broadcast: Oppose me at your peril.

It was President Robert Mugabe's harshest response yet to the greatest threat to his reign since he led the former British colony of Rhodesia to independence in 1980.

The 74-year-old Mugabe faces seething discontent over worsening economic hardships, a costly war in distant Congo and unchecked government corruption.

Human rights groups have mobilized as never before. Britain, the United States and the European Union have protested the reported torture of two journalists.

Hopes are dimming, too, that the International Monetary Fund will soon dole out $55 million in vital aid to help stabilize the plummeting Zimbabwe dollar, which has dropped from 5 1/2 U.S. cents a year ago to 2 1/2 cents.

Mugabe is ``out of touch with reality and his options are minimal,'' said David Chimini, director of the human rights group ZimRights. ``Civil society must begin thinking about alternatives.''

In his speech Feb. 7, Mugabe said the independent news media, which are among his harshest critics, could not expect protection from the law for their ``lies.''

Journalists ``should not cry foul when the extraordinary visits'' them, he warned, a reference to the alleged torture by military police in January of the two journalists, who reported a suspected coup plot.

Acting under security laws, the government has arrested six journalists this year for their reporting on Zimbabwe's involvement in Congo's civil war.

Mugabe also lashed out at human rights groups, four top judges and the nation's 80,000 whites, whom he accused of fomenting dissent and committing political and economic sabotage.

``This was a replay of what we have always known him to be _ unrepentant, ruthless and intolerant of opposition,'' said Lupi Mushayakarara, an activist in the National Constitutional Assembly, an alliance of 40 human rights and civic organizations pushing for political reform.

In his speech, Mugabe challenged the four judges to quit for what he described as political bias for protesting abuses of the law by the government.

The judges have yet to respond.

Welshman Ncube, a leading constitutional lawyer, said the judges shouldn't give in.

``They have been wronged, but they must look at the bigger picture _ that it's better to remain and not disrupt a judiciary that has always had the confidence of the people that their rights will be upheld in the end,'' Ncube said.

``It is also disturbing that Mugabe's attack on supposed white saboteurs implies he believes blacks are incapable of thinking for themselves. ... He has repeatedly attempted to divide the nation on racial lines.''

Mushayakarara, the reform activist, said Mugabe's media crackdown is a ploy to distract attention from weakening control over his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front party and over government agencies.

The party is paralyzed by infighting over policy and divided by rivalry over who might succeed Mugabe, Mushayakarara said.

Failure to ease economic woes could open the door to a civil uprising, she said. Already, police patrols have been beefed up downtown in case of protests over possible food shortages.

``There's talk of him stepping back and appointing a prime minister from among his faithful, but that's not what we need. Zimbabwe needs a complete change of management,'' Mushayakarara said.

How that would happen in the absence of a viable political opposition is a question mark.

Mike Auret, head of the Roman Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and who has accused Mugabe of dictatorial rule, said the unpopular deployment of 8,000 Zimbabwe soldiers to Congo since August has distracted the government.

``Constitutional reform, the economy, poverty, crime, deteriorating health and social services should be being addressed but are not,'' he said.

Mugabe criticized Auret by name during his speech, accusing the activist of undermining national unity with his outspoken attacks.

``This is desperation. He is in a very deep hole,'' Auret said.