More Media Arrests in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo
Zimbabwean Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, pictured in May 2001 in Harare (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

Zimbabwe’s government didn’t wait long to fire its first volley at what remains of the country’s independent press in the new year. On Jan. 10, police arrested Iden Wetherell, the Zimbabwe Independent’s managing editor and the 2002 recipient of World Press Review’s International Editor of the Year Award, on charges of defaming President Robert Mugabe. News editor Vincent Kahiya and reporter Dumisani Muleya were also arrested. The three were released on bail on Jan. 12, but two days after their release, Zimbabwe Independent reporter Itai Dzamara and the paper’s general manager, Raphael Khumalo, were also arrested on charges of defaming Mugabe. The charges against Khumalo were dropped; Dzamara will stand trial with Wetherell, Kahiya, and Muleya on Jan. 29.

The arrests followed a Jan. 9 article written by Muleya and Dzamara, which said that Mugabe had “commandeered” an Air Zimbabwe airliner for a trip to East Asia, leaving passengers stranded at the airport. The paper noted this was the second time Mugabe had diverted an Air Zimbabwe flight.

Information Minister Jonathan Moyo called the report “blasphemous” and said, “Those behind this deliberate falsehood calculated to bring the office of the president into disrepute must be held accountable.”

Wetherell told WPR this week that he expected the government to crack down on the newspaper sooner or later. “We expected something of this sort but not from this story. We are going to be targeted. We are the only outspoken voice remaining, and this action was inevitable. We were prepared for that but did not know what form it would take,” Wetherell said.

Asked what this development meant for the future of the independent press in Zimbabwe, Wetherell said, “The government is hostile to media pluralism and freedom of speech. It is frightened of free speech because it exposes Mugabe’s misrule. Do not forget that criminal defamation is a relic of empire. It was used by colonial governments to suppress critical voices....So we should not be surprised to find it lurking in the government’s arsenal of repressive laws. Zimbabwe has a long history of attachment to its colonial laws.”

While Wetherell’s fate and that of his colleagues at the Zimbabwe Independent trio remains a subject of speculation, concerns about press freedom in the country have unsettled media organizations in Zimbabwe and beyond. Harare’s independent Daily News and its Sunday edition were shut down on Sept. 12, 2003, on similar charges.

“The history of criminal defamation the world over and in Zimbabwe is that is it’s a law used by politicians to purportedly protect their reputation and punish the media for criticizing their actions and the conduct of government business,” Rashweat Mukundu, a research and information officer at the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe, told WPR.

Mukundu said he believes there are other ways to resolve such disputes and that it is not necessary to arrest journalists for what they write. “This only makes journalists afraid to write about the operations of the government and its officials,” which should be one of their main tasks.

Sam Sipepa Nkomo, the chief executive officer of the Daily News’ parent company, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), told WPR that the arrest of Wetherell and his colleagues was a deliberate attempt to cow the Zimbabwe Independent into silence.

“When this happened to the Daily News, many people said it would only happen to the Daily News, but this is a calculated move to close down all independent papers unless someone stops Jonathan Moyo,” Nkomo said, adding that ANZ is still fighting to bring the Daily News back to newsstands.

Since the euphemistically named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act was signed into law in 2002, more than 30 Zimbabwean journalists and international correspondents have been harassed, arrested, and charged under its provisions.

Reaction from international press-freedom advocates was swift. “The year 2004 opened in the worst possible way for press freedom in Zimbabwe. Three journalists have already been arrested and police are still preventing the Daily News from reappearing despite a high court ruling in its favor,” Robert Ménard, secretary-general of Paris’ Reporters sans Frontières, said in a Jan. 12 statement.

If the Zimbabwean government’s latest actions are any indication of its tolerance for criticism, the future of free expression in Zimbabwe looks bleak indeed.