Zimbabwean security forces clamp down of freedom of expression

Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono has been imprisoned for close to a month, sending an intimidating message to journalists who try to expose corruption in Zimbabwe.

However, Zimbabwean journalist, trainer and researcher Reyhana Masters said there is the impression that specific groups of people who speak out against injustices in Zimbabwe are the only targets yet the government is suppressing a “nation that is trying to speak”.

“There is no space to speak or express your frustration, especially when you can be arrested for a comment you made on Twitter or a WhatsApp group where you think you are safe,” she said.

Masters was speaking in conversation with novelist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga on Namibia Media Trust’s (NMT) FreeSpeak podcast on the gagging of freedom of speech in Zimbabwe which was hosted by NMT chair Gwen Lister.

“When [President Emmerson] Mnangagwa came to power it was seeming like he was somewhat a reformist,” said Lister, adding that there were hopes that President Mnangagwa, elected in 2018, would bring the Mugabe era to an end.

The 2020 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index highlights that the page has not turned on the Mugabe era that cracked down on freedom of expression through harassment, intimidation, arrests and abduction.

”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 said.

The army and the police shut down the central business districts of major cities and towns, ahead of the 31 July demonstrations planned to protest corruption in the country, independant Zimbabwean newspaper NewsDay reported.

Zimbabwean state newspaper The Herald quoted President Mnangagwa saying: “The planned insurrection, which can be linked to past schemes to destabilise the nation, such as the January 2019 protests and the August 2018 post-election violence, will not be allowed to happen this time around”.

Scores of people who protested in spite of the government’s disapproval and clamping down were arrested. Dangarembga was one of them.

“People had the choice of going to demonstrate knowing it had been criminalised, the criminalisation wasn't legalised it was commanded. Military and security services were deployed in high-density areas. People were intimidated. In that scenario people lost heart and then decided that they would not demonstrate. I then had to ask myself whether I was also not going to go”, Dangarembga said.

Dangarembga said Zimbabwe is a country “culturally invested in fear” from the colonial era.

“At the moment, we have an authority that simply uses and works with that fear. People are used as examples so that people see what could happen if you behaved that way. It's a conversation we need to have at a societal level,” she said.

Hashtags such as #ZanuPFMustGo and #ZimbabweanLivesMatter have helped bring injustices in Zimbabwe to the fore on social media. However, social media penetration in Zimbabwe only stands at 6.6%, according to We Are Social, leaving the majority of Zimbabweans outside of the discussion.

#ThisFlag sparked a democratic movement in Zimbabwe in 2016, speaking out against Mugabe’s government. Lister highlighted that it seems to have fizzled out and wondered if #ZimbabweanLivesMatter would do the same.

#ThisFlag fizzled out because it didn't take the online conversation and build it offline,” Masters said.

She added that there are many Zimbabweans who want to participate in movements of “integrity” and that are non-partisan.

Masters said the press has its role to highlight issues that continue to plague Zimbabwe.

“It's about being able to write compellingly. writing in a way that is accurate those are the things that will keep us through the issues that we are fighting,” she said.

Numerous organisations continue to fight for Chin’ono’s release and condemn the stifling of freedom of expression in Zimbabwe. This includes the African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) that has petitioned President Mnangagwa to drop charges against Chin’ono as the charges “serve to promote self-censorship and infringe on freedom of expression and media freedom”.

Read the petition here.

Listen to the FreeSpeak podcast episode with Reyhana Masters and Tsitsi Dangarembga here.

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