Journalists working in Zimbabwe are often violated and subjected to harassment that impedes their ability to do their work. The recent general elections held in the country were another flashpoint for media violations which caused an outcry, and yet conditions have not improved. 

Zimbabwe held its general elections on 23 and 24 August 2023. It saw the incumbent, Emmerson Mnangangwa walk away with the most votes. The elections were a flashpoint for violations against the media where many journalists reported being harassed and violated by supporters of the ruling Zanu PF party in the run-up to the elections. Journalists were allegedly barred from attending campaign rallies and others like Voice of America freelance journalist, Annahstacia Ndlovu were allegedly beaten up by Zanu PF supporters. 

The Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) said they had received reports of 13 journalists being attacked around the election period in Zimbabwe, and have recorded twice as many attacks on journalists this year compared to the last elections in Zimbabwe in 2018. 

“The media’s reportage will be challenged big time, and they will be literally reporting in the line of fire,” said MISA Regional Director, Tabani Moyo. 

The South African National Editors’ Forum, together with the global community of journalists, media organisations and civil society groups have raised concerns over the infringements on media freedom and the repeated harassment faced by Zimbabwean journalists. 

“We call upon the Zimbabwean government and authorities to uphold the principles of democracy, transparency, and human rights by granting journalists from South Africa, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, Africa, and around the world, the necessary accreditation to enter Zimbabwe and cover the forthcoming elections,” they said in a statement. 

The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists said that a “free media that operates without any challenges will be able to be a contributor towards making sure that we have an election that is credible.” 

To ensure that the media had done its job ethically, MISA developed a fact sheet on media professionalism and accountability during elections. It outlines the a list of responsibilities that the media should follow according to the Constitution of Zimbabwe, Electoral Act, SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, Harmonised Election Media Code of Conduct Pledge 2023 and rules for redress and accountability. 

In essence, the guideline sought to ensure that journalists conducted their work with best practice. 

These include: 

  • provide accurate information
  • commit to ethical standards
  • grant the public access to a wide range of facts, opinions, and ideas
  • hold authorities accountable, promote rule of law and respect for human rights by reporting on legal matters impartially and fairly, and 
  • avoid prejudice and hatred and practice fair and equitable coverage to all political parties participating in elections.

Noting the crucial role of the media, the state has the responsibility to ensure the media are protected, but history has proven otherwise, with arrests of journalists like Hopewell Chin’ono and author Tsitsi Dangaremba. 

Read: Media freedom and democracy: Africans in four countries weigh up thorny questions about state control

Amid protests In January 2021, Chin’ono was arrested for the third time in six months for what the government called “communicating false information”. 

Chin’ono has always been critical of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rule, accusing his government of corruption and mismanagement, and has been particularly vocal since Mnangagwa’s re-election. During his third arrest, Chin’ono did not apply for bail, preferring to make a point about the state of laws in Zimbabwe when it comes to journalism.

He was quoted on Al Jazeera

“I would have totally sold out the journalism profession and the nation if I chose my immediate liberty over the media’s right to free speech and the nation’s right to speak and be protected after speaking”. 

He was eventually released on bail in late January. 

New Law 

The right to report in Zimbabwe was further challenged with the passing of a new controversial law in June: The Criminal Law Code Amendment Bill, known as the “Patriotic Bill”. It contains a clause that criminalises “wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe”, and violations of the new law is punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

Journalists have said they are concerned that the law might be weaponised [during the elections] to restrict and to retaliate against journalists and their work, while critics say it could obstruct free speech and free expression in Zimbabwe. 

They say the new law is not only an attack on media freedom and journalists, but also an attack on a democracy that is already crumbling. 

The outspoken Chin’ono was quoted on Al Jazeera Media Institute

“It seeks to destroy freedom of association and assembly. Free speech is now dead and any Zimbabwean holding a meeting with a foreign government official will be jailed.”  

While MISA told Al Jazeera Media Institute that the bill is a threat to free expression, journalists included.

 “It is feared that this law is designed to crack down on any form of dissent in the country and punishing citizens, civil society organisations and political adversaries exercising their right to free expression on national affairs.”       

More needs to be done to defend media freedom and support the rights of journalists in Zimbabwe, as SANEF said: 

We urge the Zimbabwean government to recognize the importance of an unfettered media in a democracy and to take immediate action to create an atmosphere that respects the rights of both local and foreign journalists…”.