Arrest, torture, and abductions are some of the ways the Zimbabwean government is clamping down on journalists who call out corruption and hold power to account in that country.
“We have seen an uptick in repression as President Mnangagwa’s government feels the heat from citizens about Zimbabwe’s worsening economic woes and endemic corruption, including in the procurement of COVID-19 supplies,” said Angela Quintal, Committee to Protect Journalists Africa (CPJ) programme coordinator.
Zimbabwean investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono exposed alleged COVID-19 procurement fraud in the country’s ministry of health amounting USD $60 million. Chief secretary to the president and cabinet Dr Misheck Sibanda announced that Dr
Obadiah Moyo was dismissed as a health minister in a statement on July 7.
On 20 July, Chin’ono was arrested and subsequently charged with incitement to participate in a gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of peace or bigotry or alternatively incitement to commit public violence. High Court judge Justice Tawanda Chitapi has reserved his ruling on Chin’ono bail appeal to August 6.
“The case of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono has made international headlines, so too the arrest and ongoing prosecution of journalists Frank Chikowore and Sam Takawira and just last week police raided the Bulawayo home of the editor of the ZimLive website Mduduzi Mathuthu,” Quintal said.
Mathuthu collaborated with Chin’ono on uncovering COVID-19 corruption in Zimbabwe. He is currently in hiding after security forces raided his Bulawayo home on July 30.
“His sister was detained for a couple of hours as the police sought to lure him out of hiding for questioning. Mathuthu’s three nephews were arrested, and one of them, Tawanda Muchehiwa, a journalism student was abducted and assaulted by state operatives and is currently in hospital,” said Quintal.
Blessed Mhlanga, a senior journalist at independent news publication NewsDay in Harare and head of news and current affairs at Heart and Soul TV told frayintermedia that the persecution of the press in the country impacts the quality of journalism - particularly that of investigative reporting that is more likely to push the envelope.
“Now look, if you are a family man, you'd find it to be a problem with your children or your wife would probably ask you to stop doing risky stories,” Mhlanga said.
The page has not turned on the Mugabe-era for Zimbabwean media says the 2020 Reporters Without Borders index ranking for Zimbabwe. The country ranks 126 out of 180 countries. The index notes that: “the security apparatus has not yet lost the habit of harassing journalists and acts of intimidation, verbal attacks and confiscation of equipment are all still standard practice”.
“It's scary to work as a journalist in Zimbabwe, which is a hard-hit area,” said Mhlanga.
Human Rights Watch Southern Africa director Dewa Mavhinga said Zimbabwean media plays an important role in exposing abuses in a country where security forces are used to silence citizens.
“This is why journalists must not cower or be intimidated but must continue to do their work because journalism is not a crime,” he said.
The repressive media climate in Zimbabwe exists in a socio-economic and political crisis plaguing the country.
“Zimbabwe remains in the grip of severe food insecurity, with millions of people already requiring humanitarian assistance due to prolonged drought, climate-related shocks, economic deterioration and the situation set to worsen as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads,” according to a UNICEF press release which notes that over four million people rural Zimbabweans are food insecure.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe’s latest report highlights that issues such as spiralling inflation, fuel and cash shortages are worsened in the COVID-19 pandemic where the country has enforced its own lockdown measures since 30 March.
“Zimbabwe is a good example of how some governments around our continent and the world are using COVID-19 as a pretext to crack down further on citizens' fundamental human rights and freedoms,” Quintal said.
MISA Zimbabwe’s report highlights that 25 journalists were arrested between January and June while performing their journalistic duties even though the media are considered essential workers under the country’s COVID-19 regulations.
“There's a massive gap between what the government says and what actually happens on the ground,” Mhlanga said.
Mhlanga was arrested on July 25 with his colleague Ruvimbo Nyikadzino at a roadblock on their way to cover a presser by the permanent secretary for the Ministry of Information Publicity and Broadcasting Services Nick Mangwana. They were released after police spokesperson Paul Nyathi intervened. However, that was a back and forth process with the police and soldiers at both the roadblock and the police station.
“The police and the soldiers that were there [at the roadblock] felt as if we were disregarding their authority. So they were agitated and very angry to the extent that some of them actually threatened that if we were to continue to drive through, they were going to shoot us,” Mhlanga said.
While the government uses its security forces to clamp down people speaking out, Mavhinga said it can only be a short-term tactic.
“It's like putting a lid on top of a boiling bot. It is a ticking time bomb. It's not a solution. You don't solve the solution by silencing people. You address the issue that they raise because they would be genuine issues,” he said.
#ZimbabweanLivesMatter has gained traction on social media world over with people highlighting Zimbabwe’s human rights crisis as well as to stand in solidarity with its citizens.
Various media and human rights groups are standing in solidarity with Chin’ono and other Zimbabwean journalists facing harassment. This includes The African Editors Forum and the Southern Editors Forum in their joint statement. CPJ and eight other organisations have sent out a letter to South African President and African Union (AU) chair Cyril Ramaphosa to secure the release of Chin’ono and other jailed journalists on the continent.
A group of African prominent writers have banded together and penned an open letter to AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat. More recently, ACTION Coalition calls on the President of Namibia, Dr. Hage G.Geingob, other SADC heads of State and the AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat “to act in the interests of human rights in Zimbabwe”.
Quintal said a way other journalists can stand with persecuted Zimbabwean journalists is to “leverage their connections in their own governments to put pressure on the Zimbabwean government, even if it is behind the scenes away from the sound and fury.
“Let me give you an example: The Gambia under the Yahya Jammeh dictatorship was notorious for its repression and impunity. In 2006, the editor-in-chief of The Independent, Musa Saidykhan, was arrested and detained by the Gambian police. The editor believes he was only released because then [South African] President Thabo Mbeki threatened to boycott the AU summit that was to be hosted that year by The Gambia,” she said.
“Zimbabwe's neighbors must pay attention, the SADC community must not turn a blind eye to this and people must really press for human rights respect in Zimbabwe because if that does not happen, Zimbabwe will be on the brink of total collapse,” Mavhinga said.
While Zimbabwe is in an unstable condition and working as a journalist Zimbabwe is a dangerous craft, Mhlanga said journalists such as himself are driven by passion and duty to tell the stories of silenced people.
“There's nothing better than to be able to speak up for your fellow countrymen and improve their well-being. People often ask me if I'm not afraid of being a journalist and if it's not dangerous being a journalist. But is there a job in this country or anywhere in the world that does not have its risks?” Mhlanga said.