Reporters Without Borders calls on the heads of state and government attending the Southern African Development Community summit being held in the Angolan capital of Luanda from 14 to 19 August to examine the situation of the media in Zimbabwe, where press freedom violations are increasing at an alarming rate.
In the past month alone, Reporters Without Borders has tallied more than 11 violations of the freedom or safety of journalists, all of which have remained unpunished.
“What with apparently isolated incidents and outright manoeuvres by the government to bring critical news media to heel, press freedom violations have grown significantly in Zimbabwe in recent weeks,” Reporters Without Borders said. “This is disturbing at a time when Robert Mugabe is trying to rush the organization of the presidential election and the national unity government is steadily falling apart.
“Established in 2009, this government brought a few months of hope for journalists after a dark decade for freedom of expression. But the surge in cases of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrests of journalists and the persistent climate of impunity is forcing them to censor themselves. The SADC must prevent Zimbabwe from relapsing into another period of harsh repression for independent media and journalists.”
In one of the latest cases, police in the southwestern city of Bulawayo arrested Richard Muponde of the independent newspaper NewsDay on 28 July and charged him with defaming Christopher Mangisi, a state employee who is being prosecuted for allegedly swindling an elderly woman. According to Mangisi, Muponde should have interviewed him before writing his allegedly libellous article. The prosecutor eventually dismissed the case for lack of evidence.
Five days before Muponde’s arrest, suspected supporters of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party stormed into parliament during a meeting on 23 July between legislators and civil society representatives to discuss a human rights commission bill and assaulted journalists who were covering the meeting including Aaron Ufumeli, the senior photographer for Alpha Media, which publishes NewsDay, The Independent and The Standard, and Lev Mukarati, a reporter for the Financial Gazette weekly. None of the assailants was arrested.
The previous day, two journalists with the privately-owned newspaper The Mail (who are not being named for safety reasons) were threatened by Brig. Douglas Nyikayaramba during an interview for which they had obtained accreditation. They fled when Nyikayaramba threatened to shoot them if they did not stop asking “inopportune” questions. They had just mentioned a comment by parliamentarian Tongai Matutu in which he called Nyikayaramba an “idiot.”
The journalist Blessed Mhlanga was detained on 20 July while taking photos in the central city of Kwekwe ahead of the launch of Midlands Youth Dialogue, an initiative chaired by US ambassador Charles A. Ray designed to promote political dialogue among young people. The police erased his photos and took him to Kwekwe police headquarters for questioning before releasing him.
Police in the Bulawayo suburb of Ntabazinduna arrested four journalists – Nqobani Ndlovu of The Standard, Daily News stringers Pindai Dube and Oscar Nkala and freelancer Pamenos Tuso – on 15 July for trying to cover the expulsion of a police officer who had been fired for having songs expressing support for Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, the rival of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. They were freed after being held for several hours at the police station.
These cases of violence, intimidation and arbitrary arrest are all the more alarming as the government recently threatened to arrest and jail journalists who report what is discussed in cabinet meetings. It was SW Radio Africa that revealed that this threat had been made, but several sources have confirmed it to Reporters Without Borders.
Clearly fearing that coverage of the fragile coalition government’s internal disputes could fuel public anger, officials seem to be preparing to gag the media by using articles in the criminal code or the Official Secrets Act, which bans disclosure of anything that may be “prejudicial to the safety and the interests of Zimbabwe.”
Picture : President Robert Mugabe (AFP/Jekesai Njikizana)