For the past five years southern Africa’s former “bread basket” has been plunged into a deep economic and political crisis, dragging down one of Africa’s most robust media in its repressive wake. Since 2002, the daily lot of Zimbabwean journalists has consisted of permanent surveillance, police brutality and injustice.
Zimbabwe’s press today lies in ruins. If, in 2007, Reporters Without Borders has recorded fewer press freedom violations than in previous years, it is because there are very few journalists left to arrest, newspapers to close or foreign correspondents to expel. A handful of privately-owned publications do still appear, but under tight surveillance, forced to come to terms with the presidential party. The journalists who can still work in the country protect their accreditation, renewed each year by the all-powerful Media and Information Commission (MIC). They face two years in prison if caught working without this precious document. The management of the few remaining private titles to still appear are under heavy pressure to adopt the political line of the ruling party and to prevent the more critical journalists from working. No foreign reporter can legally work in Zimbabwe, without fear of arrest, being paraded like a trophy and expelled after high-speed sentencing.
However when in 2002, President Robert Mugabe oversaw the passing of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), southern Africa’s former “breadbasket” saw an unprecedented flowering of the media. People fell on the newspapers every morning, in particular the privately-owned The Daily News which was headed by experienced journalists, carried reliable news and was irreverent towards the government. After being closed at the end of a run of perverse legal shenanigans, it has been fighting to reappear ever since. Despite several legal rulings in its favour, the authorities have always found bureaucratic methods to block it.
In any event, the life of independent journalists has become impossible. Two episodes reveal interference in the media by Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) with disastrous results. The independent-minded editor of the privately-owned weekly the Financial Gazette (FinGaz), Sunsleey Chamunorwa, was blocked from entering his office on 13 March and told that he had been dismissed without notice. The newspaper has belonged to the CIO since 2001, after a financial operation using the governor of the Central Bank, Gideon Gono, as cover. “The editor managed to hang on until now because Gono refused to bend to pressure from the ruling party and the CIO, which complained about the party’s editorial line, which supposedly harmed the party and favoured the MDC”, [Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party], a source at the paper who requested anonymity, told Reporters Without Borders. In another similar incident on 7 March, Tichaona Chifamba, CEO of the publishers of the Daily Mirror, announced to staff that the paper was being forced to stop appearing because of a financial crisis. The CIO had taken control of the paper in 2004, after driving out its founder Ibbo Mandaza. Since then, sales had fallen to a circulation of only 2,000 copies a day and debts amounted to 500 million Zimbabwe dollars (about 1.5 million Euros).
Demonstration on 11 March
From the political point of view, the year’s most significant event occurred on 11 March when police brutally put down a “prayer meeting” which was organised by the Save Zimbabwe Campaign (SZC), comprising churches, opposition parties, non-governmental organisations, trade unions and student bodies opposed to the Mugabe government. A number of opposition activists and leading figures including Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, leaders of the two MDC factions, were arrested and beaten. Tsvangirai Mukwazhi, a freelance photographer working for the US news agency Associated Press (AP), and a freelance journalist also working for AP, Tendai Musiyu, were arrested and then released after two days in custody.
Two weeks later on 31 March a shock went through the profession after the body was found of freelance cameraman Edward Chikomba, former contributor to state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) two days after he was snatched by unknown abductors, suspected of being intelligence agents. A former colleague said that Chikomba had been accused of selling footage of Morgan Tsvangirai to foreign media, which showed the head injuries he had suffered as a result of being beaten up in custody. Since leaving the production team of the programme Vision 30, put out by ZBC until 2001, Chikomba had continued to make independent films for individuals or media, particularly abroad. There was no proper investigation of his murder.
The following day police arrested Gift Phiri, contributor to the privately-owned London-based weekly The Zimbabwean, whom they been looking for since his paper published the names of police officers and politicians implicated in a round-up of opposition figures, human rights activists and journalists. The journalist found it difficult to sit down, walk or stand upright at his trial six days later, because of blows inflicted while in custody.
Even if, at the end of the year, amendments to the AIPPA made it more liberal, the authorities continued to crack down hard on those it considered to be “agents of the West”. The intelligence services drew up a black list of at least 15 journalists working in the independent press ahead of 2008 presidential and legislative elections. On 26 September, Zimbabwe’s independent press published a fax of a page with an official government letterhead and dated June 2007 which under the heading “targeted journalists” gave the names of 15 media figures that “are to be placed under strict surveillance and taken in on the various dates set. They’re working hand in hand with hostile anti-Zimbabwean western governments.”
If democratic reforms are to be undertaken in Zimbabwe, they would have to dismantle a system of repression, which has been constantly honed by technological advances. One such example came on 6 August when President Mugabe promulgated the “Interception of Communications Bill”, allowing the government and the police to intercept, read or listen into emails and mobile phone communications, without any obligation to open legal proceedings. This law strengthens the paranoia of the political and police apparatus and demonstrates how far government intolerance can lead. This was illustrated when a group of plain-clothes police turned up in the wings of the “Theatre in the Park” during a performance on 28 September of The Final Push by playwright Daniel Maphosa, taking a satirical look at eight years of political crisis in Zimbabwe. During an interval, police bundled actors Sylvanos Mudzvova and Anthony Tongani into a waiting truck. Independent journalist James Jemwa, who was filming the play, was arrested in his turn when he challenged police about the arrest of the two actors.