Opinion

How Zimbabwe is clamping down on press freedom

Hopewell Chin’ono is facing cha rges carrying up to 10 years in prison, writes Kim Sengupta

Zimbabwe journalist Hopewell Chin’ono appears at the magistrates courts while handcuffed in Harare, Wednesday, July, 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

“Journalists are not above the law. Lawyers are not above the law. Doctors and nurses are not above the law. Politicians and bankers are not above the law. Anyone suspected to have committed a crime should be subjected to due process,” Nick Mangwana, Zimbabwe’s secretary for information, declared.

But many now being “subjected to due process” in Zimbabwe are those who have one thing in common – opposing those in power. And, in the case of Hopewell Chin’ono, there is the added factor of holding up the government to rigorous journalistic scrutiny.

Chin’ono’s arrest followed an investigation by him that exposed how establishment figures were profiting from massive coronavirus-related financial contracts while the country, impoverished with a shattered infrastructure, suffers the devastating effects of the pandemic.

A magistrates’ court in the capital, Harare, denied Chin’ono bail this week, giving a curfew imposed over the pandemic as the reason for postponing the hearing. He faces charges of incitement of public violence, carrying a sentence of 10 years in prison on conviction.

I and colleagues from the international media had met Chin’ono and many of his colleagues while covering the fall of Robert Mugabe and the subsequent election. There was, at the time, great hope that four decades of often brutal authoritarian rule would be followed, at last, by establishment of basic freedoms.

But the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa, from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, has been repeatedly accused of bringing back the repression of the past. Journalists seeking to reveal malpractice and corruption have found themselves in the firing line.

Chin’ono’s reports led to the arrest and and subsequent sacking last month of health minister Obadiah Moyo for allegedly awarding government contracts of £47m for test kits and personal protective equipment at inflated costs.

But at the same time Chin’ono began to come under attack from Zanu-PF. At one point he told friends and colleagues that he was apprehensive of physical attacks, even attempts on his life. Patrick Chinamasa, a party spokesperson, accused him of seeking to embarrass President Mnangagwa by linking his family to the contract scandal. Another official, Tafadzwa Mugwadi, warned that the journalist and others arrested cannot expect an early release: “Our institutions do not arrest criminals so that they can free them,” he said.

The authorities hold that the accusation against Chin’ono of inciting violence arose from tweets he sent asking people to attend a protest march against corruption next week. They claimed that the demonstration was an attempt to weaken security and undermine the government while it is dealing with the Covid-19 emergency.

There has been a spate of detentions recently in Zimbabwe. An opposition leader, Jacob Ngarivhume, was arrested for the same call to protest as Chin’ono. A dozen health workers were arrested earlier this month during a march called in protest over poor pay and conditions. Three female opposition activists claimed that they suffered torture, including sexual abuse, after being forcibly taken away by security forces as they were leaving a rally against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

There has been international condemnation over Chin’ono’s arrest. The European Union mission stressed that “journalism is a crucial pillar of any democratic society and the fight against corruption”.

The US embassy stated “independent media plays a vital role in the exchange of information and ideas, and no journalist should be threatened or arrested for doing their job”.

This may well elicit a hollow laughter from journalists in America where the media is regularly subjected to vitriolic abuse and portrayed as the enemy by Donald Trump. Many have been threatened, attacked and arrested for doing their job recently, reporting on the protests which followed the killing of George Floyd. This has included The Independent’s correspondent Andrew Buncombe who was detained, assaulted and shackled while covering a police operation in Seattle. In response, The Independent launched its Journalism Is Not A Crime campaign to call for the protection of reporters.

It is not just Zimbabwe where freedom of the press continues to be under threat from those in power. – Independent.

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