Journalists Under Siege

Namibian journalists protest Zimbabwe's clampdown on press freedom, Windhoek, Jan. 18, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

"You have to experience it to feel how it really is. Words can't adequately convey the fright you get, traveling 20 kilometers in a bushy area, fleeing from Central Intelligence Organization officers. [It] was the last thing I ever dreamt would happen to me. I have decided to quit journalism and get out of the country," confides Bornwell Choga. Choga left his job at the monthly Harare newspaper High-Density Mirror a month ago.

Many independent journalists in Zimbabwe, wearied by harassment from President Robert Mugabe's regime, could likely identify with Choga. Zimbabwe's government, which is facing a deepening political crisis ahead of presidential elections in March, has stepped up its harassment of critical journalists and, on Jan. 16, introduced the euphemistically-titled Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill, which would bar foreign correspondents from working in Zimbabwe and require all Zimbabwean journalists to renew their licenses to practice. Journalists working for Zimbabwe's independent newspapers fear that their licenses will not be renewed and that Harare newspapers like The Zimbabwe Independent, Financial Gazette, and Daily News will finally be forced to close down.

The bill also prescribes heavy fines for journalists who publish stories on "protected information"—as yet undefined—or news "likely to cause alarm and despondency."

In a bid to prop up its image, the Mugabe regime, weary of criticism, has been quick to mete harsh penalties on journalists whom they perceive are critical to the government's policies.

The latest causality of state abuse is Mduduzi Mathuthu, a reporter for Harare's beleaguered Daily News. Mathuthu was arrested on Nov. 18, 2001, after writing a story accusing the police of standing by while a mob of war veterans and supporters of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF supporters burned and looted the offices of the Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe's largest opposition party.

"I fear for my life," Mathuthu says. "This year alone, I have been arrested on flimsy and trumped charges on three occasions. The charges have ranged from 'trespassing at a police station' to 'writing stories likely to cause fear, alarm, and despondency."

"Until the day of my last arrest, seeing men with fierce and lethal looks marching into our offices and demanding to talk to me at their offices had become customary and would not raise fear," he says.

Critical journalists are routinely subject to harassment in Zimbabwe. On Feb. 19, 2001, Mercedes Sayagues, a correspondent for South Africa's liberal Mail & Guardian, was given 24 hours to leave Zimbabwe. Her crime? Allegedly having links with Angola's rebel guerilla movement, UNITA, and an anti-government bias in her reporting.

On Feb. 17, 2001, Joseph Winter, a BBC correspondent in Harare, was given two hours to leave Zimbabwe, after having been accused of writing lies. Earlier that the year, President Mugabe, responding to a question posed by Winter, asked him: "Mr. Winter, why do you write lies?"

On Mar. 13, 2001, Njabulo Ncube, a reporter for Harare's Financial Gazette, was accosted by Abel Mhlangu, a veteran of Zimbabwe's revolutionary war, at a press club meeting: "You are a fool," Mhlangu shouted at Ncube, "You will not last up to 2002."

On Jul. 3, 2001, Cornelius Nduna, news editor at Harare's government-owned Standard News, and a group of photographers and cameramen from the Daily News and the South African Broadcasting Association were hospitalized for injuries sustained filming bread looting during a national strike. Upon their release from the hospital, they were thrown into jail, accused of disturbing the police in the discharge of their duties. After spending the night in jail, they were released after the attorney general refused to prosecute.

Nduna chronicled his experience in the Jul. 8, 2001, edition of Standard: "Cellphones, a video cassette, and still photography camera films were all seized. From the time our arrest, around 10 a.m., we were harangued, harassed, humiliated, and finally thrown into a cell crammed with criminals. Pleadings from our lawyers for the police to release us into his custody fell on deaf ears. Our crime: We had been privy to a scene epitomizing police brutality. A flimsy offense was quickly conjured up and our fate was to spend the night in police holding cells.

"But as I look at the whole experience in retrospect, I have no sense of regret at all. The police detention provided an incisive insight into what Zimbabweans from all walks of life are subjected to by police on day-to-day basis. Instead of being there to protect the citizens of this country, the force has become a political tool, which, at the whims of the powers that be, will readily tear the police charter into shreds and harass innocent civilians."

Basildon Peta, Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists and himself a victim of harassment, sees incidents like this as evidence of an open strategy to target critical reporters. He says, "I have been receiving threats over the phone. Messages have been left on my doorstep, saying that I will die before the presidential elections [in March]."

Peta urges all Zimbabwean journalists to be careful and to avoid volatile places: "They also have to improve their personal security because if you are under threat, you have to protect yourself. The police have been applying the law selectively, so we have to protect ourselves."