Victory for Zimbabwean journalists during COVID-19

Zimbabwe’s High Court granted MISA Zimbabwe a relief order on April 20 interdicting police from harassing and arresting journalists reporting during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The police have also been ordered to recognise 2019 press cards and that the validity of last year’s press cards is communicated to all police stations in Zimbabwe.

“It means the court also acknowledges that indeed, journalists are essential services and they should not be harassed or arrested while doing their official duties during this lockdown,” said Nompilo Simanje, MISA Zimbabwe’s legal and ICT policy officer.

MISA Zimbabwe filed an urgent chamber application with the High Court earlier this month after the organisation received over 15 reports of arrests, intimidation, and harassment of journalists from across the country during its lockdown which commenced on March 30.

Police commissioner-general Godwin Matanga and the Zimbabwe Media Commission were the first and second respondents respectively.

The organisation jointly filed the application with Zimbabwean freelance journalist Panashe Makufa who was harassed and detained on April 4 while reporting during the lockdown in the capital Harare.

“We wanted the court to make a declaration that media personnel must be allowed to do their work freely during this lockdown,” Makufa said.

The heavy-handedness of security forces in Zimbabwe is not new and “verbal attacks and confiscation of equipment are all still standard practice,” according to the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index. The southern African country ranks 127 out of 180 countries on the index.

There have been concerns of African governments using the pretext of curbing COVID-19 to clamp down on media freedom as frayintermedia has reported earlier.

In its regional briefing for Africa, IFEX says Zimbabwe has the highest number of COVID-19-related press freedom violations, citing the International Press Institute’s tracker on COVID-19 coverage.

“It is all tied to media freedom. We’re in a pandemic, dealing with a crisis. People need to have access to information,” Simanje said, adding that journalists are key disseminators of vital information to the public.

When Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced an extended lockdown on 19 April 2020, his government enacted an amended statutory instrument that explicitly outlines the media as essential workers during the lockdown period.

It says, “communications and telecommunication services, including the Internet, any public or licensed broadcasting service, and the activities of persons as journalists, newspaper vendors or employees of such services,” are essential services.

Simanje described the amended statutory instrument as a gain for MISA Zimbabwe’s advocacy front.

“It now recognises journalists and newspaper vendors as essential services so there is no question now if journalists are essential services because the law is very clear about it,” she said.

Makufa said he was happy that the amended statutory instrument has been enacted.

“It means a lot to us journalists working during this lockdown. It means we now have access to effectively undertake our duties as journalists of informing the nation during this critical time,” he said.

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