When freelancer Frank Chikowore and 263Chat news website reporter Samuel Takawira went to the private Parktown clinic in the capital, Harare, on 22 May to interview the activists, the police arrested them on the grounds that they had violated social distancing rules and a lockdown ban preventing them from entering the hospital.
The two journalists, who are due to appear before a Harare court for a bail hearing today, had gone to the clinic to interview three of its patients – a parliamentarian and two women members of the main opposition party, the MDC, who say they were abducted, tortured and sexually assaulted by suspected members of the security forces on 20 May.
“Arresting journalists in the course of their work and using coronavirus lockdown measures to prevent them from investigating a troubling story are methods that recall those of the Mugabe era,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “The coronavirus crisis is not just putting Zimbabwe’s public health system and economy to the test. It is also exposing the state of fundamental freedoms in the wake of the dictator’s removal in 2017. By arresting and attacking journalists since the start of the epidemic, the authorities are demonstrating that predatory attitudes to the media are an oppressive legacy that is hard to shake off. These journalists must be released at once.”
Since launching Tracker-19, which logs press freedom violations linked to the Covid-19 epidemic, RSF has registered more than 30 arbitrary arrests of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa. Six of them have been in Zimbabwe, which is proving to be one of the most hostile environments, to the point that the High Court issued an order on 20 April forbidding police to harass or detain journalist in the course of their work.
The lockdown legislation that Zimbabwe adopted on 28 March contains some of the most draconian provisions in Africa. Under one of these provisions, reporting “false news” about officials responsible for enforcing the lockdown is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Zimbabwe is ranked 126th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.