The Battle Ahead for Zimbabwe’s Press

Iden Wetherell, the award-winning editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, speaks to reporters after he was released on bail, Jan. 12, 2004
Iden Wetherell, the award-winning editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, speaks to reporters after he was released on bail, Jan. 12, 2004 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

In its latest actions to muzzle the press, the Zimbabwean government charged four journalists and an executive of the Zimbabwe Independent for criminal defamation of President Robert Mugabe. Editor Iden Wetherell, who was the 2002 recipient of WPR's International Editor of the Year Award, news editor Vincent Kahiya, and chief reporter Dumisani Muleya were arrested over the weekend and held in jail for two nights before they could appear in court to be formally charged. On Wednesday reporter Itai Dzamara and the paper’s general manager, Raphael Kumalo, were also arrested, but only Dzamara was charged.

The charges appear to be the start of a campaign by Information Minister Jonathan Moyo to close the Zimbabwe Independent, the country’s leading privately owned newspaper.

The Mugabe government closed the country’s most popular newspaper, The Daily News, in September and has ignored four court orders to allow the newspaper to resume publishing. The government has also expelled all foreign journalists working in the country.

The new charges against the Zimbabwe Independent stem from a report that Mugabe commandeered a jet from the state-owned Air Zimbabwe for use during his recent holiday in Asia, causing the airline to cancel scheduled flights, strand passengers, and lose money.

The state maintains that Mugabe did not personally phone the airline to order the plane, but agrees that the president used the jet for his Asian holiday and caused the airline to cancel scheduled flights at the last minute. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo described the report as “blasphemous” and said the detained journalists face two years in jail if any details are found to be incorrect.

Iden Wetherell said the newspaper would put up a “robust defense.” “We absolutely stand by our story,” Wetherell said after his release on bail. “There is no dispute over the facts of the story. It is just a quibble over terminology. Political leaders are subject to legitimate public scrutiny. It is an essential part of journalism. President Mugabe as the nation’s leading public figure and Air Zimbabwe, as a publicly owned company, are answerable to the public.”

Mugabe’s use of Air Zimbabwe’s jets has caused considerable controversy. In December, the Zimbabwe Independent reported that Mugabe used a jet to travel to an international conference in Geneva and to visit Egypt, which forced Zimbabwe’s national airline to charter another jet for more than US$1 million. Mugabe, 79, has taken several vacations in southeast Asia with his wife, children, and several aides. Mugabe and 78 other top officials of his government have been barred from visiting Europe and the United States under visa restrictions imposed after Zimbabwe’s disputed presidential elections in 2002.

Last year Mugabe’s holiday to Asia caused an uproar when photographs showed he and his wife were bringing back large containers full of their shopping purchases. Zimbabwe currently relies on international relief to feed nearly half of its 12 million people.

At the same time as the arrests of the journalists, the government’s Media and Information Commission lodged a complaint against the Zimbabwe Independent for publishing an allegedly racist letter. The letter, written by a black Zimbabwean, accused Zimbabweans of behaving like a docile “herd of wild beasts” in the face of repression from Mugabe.

Wetherell rejected the assertion that the letter was racist. “We do not accept the view that writers are necessarily being racist when they say Zimbabweans are docile in standing up to tyranny.”

Harare diplomats and media experts say they fear the government’s actions are preliminary steps to shutting down the Zimbabwe Independent. The Media and Information Commission issued the order to close the Daily News and it has the power to similarly revoke the registration of the Zimbabwe Independent.

In an editorial following the arrests, the Zimbabwe Independent vowed to continued reporting in the public interest. “Further attacks on this newspaper can be expected over the next few weeks and months as the regime becomes more conscious of its waning support ahead of a general election. We are ready for that battle,” the newspaper promised.

The charges against the journalists contradict assurances that President Mugabe is reported to have given to his closest defender, South African President Thabo Mbeki, that he would curb his campaign against the press.

Mbeki visited Zimbabwe in late December and his officials say that Mugabe pledged that his government would not arrest any more journalists. Bheki Khumalo, Mbeki’s spokesman, confirmed Mugabe pledged to halt his anti-press campaign.

“I know that there was an undertaking when President Mbeki met President Mugabe in Harare that there would be amendments to the two pieces of [media] legislation as well as that there wouldn’t be any arrests in the meantime.”

Khumalo declined to comment on the views of the South African president regarding the latest arrests of journalists in Harare.

The arrests of the journalists have been widely condemned and described as a flagrant affront to press freedom. “The year 2004 opened in the worst possible way for press freedom in Zimbabwe,” said Robert Ménard, secretary general of Paris’ Reporters sans Frontières. “Three journalists have already been arrested and police are still preventing the Daily News for reappearing despite a High Court order ruling in its favor,” he said. “We are extremely concerned about the working conditions for Zimbabwe journalists and call on the authorities to pull back. The people have the right to diverse and independent news and information,” he added.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said the fresh arrests compromise the independence and entrenched freedoms of the press. “ZLHR views the action of the police as a calculated and deliberate attempt to muzzle the independent media and deprive Zimbabweans from fully enjoying the right to freedom of expression,” the body said.

ZLHR said it was concerned that if such a tragic trend were to continue, it would be impossible for journalists to continue carrying out their mandate to keep the public informed. “Such repeated and now all too frequent attacks on the independent press are not only unfortunate, but also detrimental to press freedom,” ZLHR said.

The London-based advocacy group Amnesty International also rapped Zimbabwean authorities for ignoring court orders and the continued use of unconstitutional laws. “Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed serious concern about the use of national legislation to suppress freedom of expression and silence dissent in Zimbabwe,” the organization said. “Many of the provisions of newly enacted legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act directly contravene Zimbabwe’s constitution and international human-rights standards. In recent months the Zimbabwe authorities have stepped up attacks against independent media outlets and journalists.”

The author reported from Zimbabwe for London’s Guardian for 22 years before authorities deported him for his coverage in May 2003.