Zim journalists braced for government reprisals


Zimbabwe's upper house of parliament approved the country's new constitution, sending the document to President Robert Mugabe to sign into law.

Harare - Zimbabwean journalists are no strangers to harassment, but as fresh presidential elections near, there is a gloomy sense the media is being thrust back into the firing line.

It is an all too familiar sequence of events:

A story is printed or broadcast that is damaging to 89-year-old President Robert Mugabe or his party, threats and denunciations follow from government and its media mouthpieces, then come the arrests.

So it was last week for two journalists with the Zimbabwe Independent, who were charged with publishing "false statements prejudicial to the State."

Their crime was to print an article suggesting that security personnel close to Mugabe were in talks with his rivals from Morgan Tsvangirai&39;s Movement for Democratic Change.

The article quoted a person directly involved in the talks and struck a nerve.

They were reportedly discussing how to ensure a smooth transfer of power, should Tsvangirai defeat Mugabe and end his 33-year rule.

Security chiefs have made no secret of their loyalty to Mugabe and authorities often react heavy-handedly to any suggestions to the contrary.

Government officials denied the talks took place.

The pair were later released, but the point was made.

"Journalists will be casualties," said Foster Dongozi, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists bleakly. "We expect this to continue."

The union says a total of 13 journalists were arrested on various charges last year, while several others received threats.

Three have been arrested so far this year, including a reporter from a privately owned daily NewsDay who was arrested at a police station after going there to seek protection following threats from a ZANU-PF official.

Many of the prosecutions stem from before the 2002 presidential elections - when Tsvangirai presented a formidable challenge to Mugabe&39;s rule and the government passed a new media law which has been invoked to muzzle journalists.

Since then several newspapers have been forced to shut down while journalists and foreign correspondents have been deported and harassed by the police.

"A lot of politicians have a lot of things they are doing behind the people&39;s back and would want to suppress," said Dongozi.

The abuse of journalists will not be perpetrated only by state actors but by political activists, Dongozi warned.

"We have those who want to get into power and those who want to cling to power and journalists are targeted by both if they are perceived to be a threat," said Dongozi.

Andrew Makoni, chairman of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said the arrests were nothing new, "we always experience an escalation of such cases whenever there is an election."

"The aim is to make sure fewer and fewer journalists are willing to take the risk and cover hot political issues and write articles that will shape the opinions of the voters."

Ahead of polls expected as early as June, Tsvangirai is insisting on a slew of reforms, including changes to how the media and security services are governed.

He has vowed to abolish the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which bars foreign journalists from working permanently in the country.

Under the law, local journalists are compelled to register annually with a government media commission and risk prosecution if they write without accreditation or breach the media law.

But so far progress has proceeded at a glacial pace.

"This could be a precursor of more arrests of journalists in the private media ahead of harmonised polls expected later this year," said Brian Mangwende, chairman of the Zimbabwe National Editors&39; Forum.

"That is why we want to see progress as soon as possible regarding media reform so that journalists are not arrested at will."

While authorities keep an eye on the conventional media, critics of Mugabe&39;s regime have found a safe haven in social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter as well as blogs.

Dumisani Muleya, one of the arrested Zimbabwe Independent journalists, said while the authorities can monitor and crack down on newspaper journalists, social media workers and activists will prove elusive.

"One wonders why authoritarian regimes like the one in Zimbabwe still think they can successfully suppress the media in this digital and social media age," said Muleya.

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