Media to keep fighting for a free Zim

May 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm Leave a comment

By Dumisani Muleya.

I had started my Monday morning work in a good frame of mind and a happy
disposition as I was going to welcome from Joburg a longtime friend,
Relibile Manala, with whom I went to high school.

The weather was also sunny; clear as the azure sky of a deep blue summer,
keeping me cheerful. So I expected an auspicious welcome for Manala in
Harare, which he had last visited 15 years ago before his uncle died. A few
months ago I had been a guest at his beautiful wedding in Mahikeng where we
had lots of fun.

We had been planning his visit for some weeks and everything seemed to be
going well until the Monday afternoon he arrived at my office in central
Harare, next to the Zanu-PF headquarters.

The situation changed dramatically. I was informed by Loud Ramakgapola,
human resources manager of Alpha Media – publishers of the weekly Zimbabwe
Independent which I edit, the daily NewsDay and the Sunday weekly Standard
newspapers – that the police were looking for us.

Alpha Media is owned by Mail & Guardian proprietor Trevor Ncube, a veteran
Zimbabwean journalist and now the country’s biggest individual media mogul.

The police, Ramakgapola told me, wanted to see our chief reporter, Owen
Gagare, a company representative who usually in such cases is our internal
lawyer, Nqobile Ndlovu, and myself, in connection with an army story we had
been running for the previous two weeks.

The story was basically about disclosures by Housing Minister Giles
Mutsekwa, a former army major and MDC-T secretary for defence and security,
that he had been secretly meeting with Zimbabwe Defence Forces chiefs –
including commander General Constantine Chiwenga, Zimbabwe National Army
chief of staff (responsible for general staff) Major-General Martin Chedondo
and chief of staff (quartermaster) Major-General Douglas Nyikayaramba – to
discuss electoral politics and the political scenario after elections.

Mutsekwa also told us he was in the process of arranging a meeting with
chief of staff (administration) Major-General Trust Mugoba.

He said he had also met Police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri. All
this was on record.

The common denominator among Chiwenga, Chihuri, Chedondo, Nyikayaramba and
Mugoba, besides being soldiers, is that they are military hardliners who
have vowed to back President Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF to the hilt, come
what may.

They have repeatedly said in public that they would not accept Prime
Minister Morgan Tsvangirai as Zimbabwean president even if he won the
elections. Some of them say they would rather resign if he takes over, while
others have been insinuating a coup.

This is the single biggest threat to Zimbabwe’s transition from dictatorship
to democracy. So Mutsekwa said he was talking to the security service chiefs
to manage the volatile and fragile political transition, especially if
Tsvangirai won.

So after writing the story, we thought it was fairly straightforward stuff,
nothing to sweat about even in a country where writing about the security
forces, never mind the content, is deemed potentially treasonous by

When it comes to such things, in Zimbabwe a journalist is guilty until
proven innocent, not the other way around.

Of course, in terms of the constitution and the law, you are innocent until
proven guilty, but Mugabe’s henchmen see the constitution as theoretical
nonsense. That is why they brazenly violate the laws through partisan
political activities and remarks without qualms.

So Ramakgapola said he had a message for me from Detective Assistant
Inspector John Peter Mudyirwa. He had left his number and wanted to see us
as soon as possible, but preferably on Tuesday at 8am at Harare central
police station.

I immediately called Mudyirwa and introduced myself. After a few seconds of
pleasantries, he confirmed that the police were looking for us and we must
report at the station at 8am on Tuesday without fail.

Although I had been arrested a number of times before in connection with my
journalistic work, from that moment my mood sank as I started worrying about
what lay ahead.

No matter how experienced you are, it’s always nerve-racking to visit a
Zimbabwean police station.

Who would want to be detained at a police station where dingy and stinking
cells designed to hold six inmates are packed with more than 30 detainees
sharing a single toilet flushed from the outside whenever the guard on duty
feels like doing so?

My previous experiences there had been chilling, although I have always
maintained a brave face.

After an uneasy night, I woke up early, headed to work and joined colleagues
to go and face the police.

Mudyirwa had already hinted that we would be charged under the repressive
Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

After rushing through early-morning Harare traffic jams to make it on time,
we arrived and came out of the car ready for interrogation.

We walked into the drab building, passed through a crowded reception and
started a meandering walk down foul-smelling corridors and past indifferent
staff, until we got to office number 86/88 where we were wanted.

After being shuttled from one office to another, we settled at number 86,
but still it was difficult to locate Mudyirwa, because his name was wrongly
spelt for us.

Eventually he came and greeted us – but wasted no time in starting the
process to charge us under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act,
section 31, which deals with “publishing or communicating false statements
prejudicial to the state”. The charge was because we had published or
communicated a statement which was “wholly or materially false with the
intention or realising that there is a real risk or possibility of
undermining public confidence in Zimbabwe Defence Forces”.

If convicted we could be jailed for 20 years.

It all sounded ridiculous, yet it was clear that we were potentially in
serious trouble because of the threats that had been made against us by
security chiefs and government spokesmen.

As the police started asking us to read the charges and answer probing
questions, and began getting us profiled, it dawned on me that the point of
this official summons was not to ask us to help them understand the story;
it was to intimidate us.

Absurd questions were asked, but we initially chose to be polite and
co-operate while sticking to deliberate irrelevance until we detected
growing hostility, pressure and subtle bullying.

Most of their questions to us were strikingly pointless.

The situation almost deteriorated into confrontation when the police
demanded our bank account details. We wanted to know why bank accounts were
relevant to an army story.

All the time I kept thinking about how the government’s treatment of us was
petty and vindictive, and that this was evidence – if ever more was needed –
that Zimbabwe was an Orwellian dystopia.

Media tyranny remains entrenched in Zimbabwe.

Government officials have a deep-seated attitude and an enduring policy of
control of society by trying to block the free flow of information,
purveying propaganda, surveillance, harassment and arrest of civil society
dissenters and journalists. Our arrest this week is part of an ongoing broad
crackdown on civil society leaders, human rights and political activists,
judges, lawyers, and any other dissenters, particularly now before the
general elections.

Press freedom in Zimbabwe remains restricted as reforms to liberalise the
legal and regulatory environment after years of authoritarian abuses have
largely been stalled by Mugabe and his Zanu-PF hardliners despite the
coalition government that includes the two MDC parties.

Harassment of journalists, particularly those who work for the private
media, remains commonplace.

Even though Zimbabwe’s constitution – which might be replaced by the new one
by next week – has provisions for freedom of expression, including “press
freedom” after amendment number 19, a draconian legal framework continues to
constrain citizens and journalists from freely expressing themselves.

There is still an array of laws that inhibit media freedom.

Some of these statutes include the Information and Protection of Privacy
Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Public Order and Security Act and the
catch-all Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, under which we were
charged on Tuesday.

Media companies and their journalists are required to register under
Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which gives the information
minister – a redundant portfolio in reasonably free and democratic
societies, typical of the Soviet era – sweeping powers to decide which
publications could operate legally and who is able to work as a journalist
although the registration and accreditation is done by the statutory
Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC).

To its credit, the ZMC has licensed more than 50 publications since 2009,
including two radio stations aligned to Zanu-PF.

However, the ZMC has been fighting to close down foreign publications
circulating in Zimbabwe, mainly the South African Sunday Times and the Mail
& Guardian – showing that the more things change, the more they remain the

At the same time, it’s worth noting that Zimbabwe is not like Belarus, Cuba,
Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan, or Uzbekistan
where the private media are either non-existent or barely able to operate.

While the Zimbabwean government controls the biggest media house and
virtually all broadcasting stations, there is a small but vibrant private
media that have refused to act as mouthpieces for the Mugabe regime,
insisting on being public watchdogs.

For all their shortcomings, which include being partisan and sometimes
reckless in their reportage, private media journalists in Zimbabwe have
fought for press freedom in a state where dissent is ruthlessly crushed
through harassment, intimidation, arrests and detention, among other forms
of repression.

This, coupled with political struggles for change, has ensured that there is
hope ahead for Zimbabwe.

– Muleya is editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent in Harare.


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