by Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
On March 30, 2007 Zimbabwean journalists here woke up to sad and disturbing news: Edward Chikomba, a former cameraman with the government-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (the country’s only television station), had been abducted from his home by state security agents.
The circumstances of his abduction were chilling. According to his brother, unknown assailants had arrived at the journalist’s house in the capital, Harare, the day before, on March 29. They hit him savagely on the mouth with rifle butts in full view of neighbors, then threw him into an unmarked vehicle. In a desperate attempt to save him, Edward’s brother ran after the vehicle, but he could not catch it, stumbled and fell hard on the tarmac.
We had every reason to worry about Chikomba’s safety. Edward’s abduction occurred just two weeks after police had disrupted a scheduled prayer meeting organized by a Christian opposition organization known as the Save Zimbabwe Campaign in Harare.
On March 11, 2007, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and more than 40 other activists, while on their way to this prayer meeting were arrested and brutally assaulted. Two journalists covering the event, Tsvangirai Mukwazhi and Tendai Musiyazviriyo, were also arrested. These two journalists were assaulted later while in police custody.
Under the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), religious gatherings do not need police clearance. However, police argued that the opposition was really holding a political gathering in the guise of a prayer meeting. This was at a time when political rallies had been “temporarily” banned by the government.
While those events widely condemned, we journalists working for private media feared for our own safety almost as much as for that of the MDC activists.
The weeks that followed these human rights abuses were very tense. At the command of Robert Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Operatives, police continued to arrest, assault and abduct opposition leaders and activists from their homes
Consequently, when we heard of Edward’s disappearance we were very apprehensive. And it turned out we had every reason to be: two days later, on April 1, 2007, Edward’s brutally assaulted body was found lifeless near the industrial farming area of Darwendale, 80 kilometers outside Harare.
Although police are allegedly still investigating his death, many here believe that Edward’s killing was linked to the fact that he had sold some footage of a badly beaten Tsvangirai to foreign media organizations after the opposition leader was assaulted while in police custody.
A badly injured Tsvangirai was shown on foreign television stations leaving a Harare courthouse. This sparked international condemnation of the Mugabe-led regime. Showing this footage was Edward’s crime.
Through Edward’s cooperation, the many banned foreign news outlets such as the British Broadcasting Corporation and CNN now suddenly had these horrifying pictures. Needless to say, while the footage aired on many foreign television stations, it was not shown on ZBC.
This most unfortunate death and numerous other attacks on independent journalists covering political events is what we carried to World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Not only did most journalists feel there was nothing to celebrate, but the fear of being victimized by Mugabe’s security agents saw many of us commemorating this day in hiding, lest we end up like our colleague, Edward.
We marked this day against a background of relentless attacks on the Zimbabwean private media. Hostile media laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), are designed expressly to muzzle press freedom.
Another recent victim of AIPPA was freelance journalist Gift Phiri, chief reporter of The Zimbabwean, who was arrested at a shopping mall in Harare on April 1, 2007 on the allegation of practicing journalism without accreditation.
According to AIPPA, any journalist wishing to practice in Zimbabwe must first register with the statutory Media and Information Commission. Tafataona Mahoso, a Zanu PF apologist who is the Commission’s head, has presided over the closure of five publications so far during his tenure. Mahoso has also denied accreditation numerous times to journalists working for private media.
Journalists can also face up to two years in jail for practicing without being registered with the MIC. Newspaper companies face closure if they do not register with the state commission.
On January 31, 2007, Bill Saidi, the editor of The Standard received a brown envelope containing a bullet and a threatening message warning him to “watch out”. This private paper then had to boost security at its premises in Harare’s Central Business District. But the sad reality is that in Zimbabwe, the perpetrators of such unlawful actions will not be brought to book, even though it is clear they are a threat to every journalist practicing in private media.
Hundreds of journalists and media workers have been thrown into the streets after their papers were closed. Private papers such as The Daily News, Daily News on Sunday, The Weekly Times and The Tribune have been closed in recent years under AIPPA. All these closings are efforts by the Mugabe’s government to restrict press freedom. The two Daily News publications were closed in 2003 after they refused to register their paper under AIPPA as a protest of this unconstitutional law.
The closures of The Daily Mirror and The Sunday Mirror are more recent. Founding publisher Ibbo Mandaza closed the papers as no longer viable after the hostile takeover of the Zimbabwe Mirror Newspaper Group by the Central Intelligence Organization. So even more journalists are on the street with no prospect of employment.
As though this was not enough, Zimbabwe journalists’ application to march on World Press Freedom day was turned down by Senior Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri. After all, under the POSA act all gatherings/marches of more than five people are supposed to seek police clearance!
After the application was turned down, senior members of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists and the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Zimbabwe Chapter met to discuss a way forward in light of the unsuccessful application.
The members were divided in two: some wanted to ignore the police commissioner while others felt that tension was so high it was not safe to protest. None of us could forget how recently journalists and members of the opposition were beaten and left for dead while in police custody.
Call me a coward, but I was one of those who did not agree that we should walk into the lion’s snare. Mugabe and his system are getting more desperate by the day, and will kill anyone standing in their way. My argument was and is that that nobody should die for this useless regime; its time is fast running out.
I, for one, want to live to tell the story. I want to use the power of journalism and the ballot to remove Mugabe. However not everyone agrees with me. I understand why some people at this meeting disagreed.
At the end of the day we agreed to postpone our press freedom commemorations to May 8, 2007. All journalists in Harare agreed to meet at the local hotel which houses our press club. This press club, known as the Quill, is where journalists usually meet every day after work to drink and chat.
So, five days after the official press freedom day, on May 8, we finally commemorated world press freedom in hiding at our press club. Clearly, at least for the time being, we had been whipped into line by Mugabe’s system. So we had nothing to celebrate.
The media watchdog MISA releases a report, “So this is Democracy: State of the Media in Southern Africa” every year on May 3. This year it warned that violations against the media and journalists are likely to worsen toward elections and during the polls themselves. They urge journalists “to practice with extreme caution”. To the Mugabe government, journalists working in the private media are “sell outs.” That is why police are quick to arrest and torture: they assume we are aligned with the opposition MDC party.
Unfortunately the situation is unlikely to improve. But we will tell the story somehow.
As I write this piece, Luke Tamborinyoka, former editor of The Daily News, is in police custody. He was arrested on March 28 in police raids on the premises of the opposition MDC along with 34 other party activists. (After losing his job after the closure of The Daily News, Luke became an information officer with the MDC.) Prison sources say his condition has deteriorated over the past weeks.
Luke and the 34 other activists are accused of masterminding a series of petrol bomb attacks on the ruling party’s entities around Harare. All level headed people know that these are inside jobs used as excuses by the Mugabe regime to cow the opposition into submission before the 2008 election.
So this is the sad state of the media in Zimbabwe: we are entangled in the bitter political struggles of two rival political parties. God help us.
To my good friend Edward, may your soul rest in eternal peace.
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.