Reporters Without Borders

Mix of hope and resignation about the return of independent press

Mix of hope and resignation about the return of independent press

Published on Monday 19 April 2010.
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Fed up with years of inactivity because of forced closures and still waiting for their newspapers to be given licences to start working again, Zimbabwe’s independent media journalists are drifting in limbo - between hope and resignation - Reporters Without Borders found during a fact-finding visit to Harare from 20 to 23 March, its first trip to Zimbabwe after years of being denied visas.

“The Zimbabwean press has endured enough repression in recent years,” Reporters Without Borders said, pointing out that Zimbabwe is ranked 136th out of 175 countries in its press freedom index. “It is time for the government of national unity to demonstrate its will to reform press legislation and liberate the country’s media. There have been enough statements. We urge the Zimbabwe Media Council to quickly grant licences to the media that request them.”

During the visit to Harare, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Africa desk met Jameson Timba, who is the deputy minister of media and information and an adviser to the prime minister, human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, photojournalist Shadreck Anderson Manyere and members of the management and staff of The Zimbabwe Independent, The Standard, NewsDay, The Financial Gazette and the defunct Daily News.

Reporters Without Borders also met a foreign press correspondent, a state media representative, and representatives of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the Zimbabwean Chapter (Misa-Zimbabwe), the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), Zimbabwe Journalists for Human Rights (ZJHR) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR). Reporters Without Borders regrets being unable to meet the head of the Zimbabwe Media Council (ZMC), who did not want to give an interview.

Iniquitous laws

The Zimbabwean press was still one of the most vigorous in Africa at the start of the past decade. The public read the newspapers avidly every day, especially The Daily News. Privately-owned and run by experienced journalists, it was known for its independence and its serious, reliable reporting. “It was a vibrant newspaper and when it came on the market, it was a sell-out almost every day,” said Annie Musemburi-Musodza, who used to be former editor Geoffrey Nyarota’s assistant. “It sold more copies than The Herald, the state-owned daily.”

But President Robert Mugabe, who has been on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Predators of Press Freedom” for years, had the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) passed in 2002. It banned foreign investment in Zimbabwe’s media with the sole aim of killing off The Daily News, one of whose shareholders was Scottish. It was followed on 6 August 2007 by the Interception of Communications Act, which made it easier for the political and police apparatus to give free rein to its paranoia by allowing the authorities to monitor email messages and mobile phone calls without having to seek court permission.

This repressive legislation, enabling close surveillance of journalists and constant control of the press, is one of the biggest obstacles to media development in Zimbabwe, an obstacle that the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) is determined to combat. By means of its Media Law Reform Project, this NGO coalition is trying to get parliamentarians to completely overhaul the press laws. It also wants to get “freedom of the media” added to freedom of information in the Zimbabwean constitution.

When Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai reiterated his government’s priorities at the end of March, the presentation of a Freedom of Information Bill (to replace the AIPPA) and a Media Practitioners Bill to parliament were mentioned prominently. The 21 March issue of The Standard, an independent weekly, said the government hoped to complete these reforms by the end of the year.

Zimbabwe Media Council and return of independent press

The Zimbabwe Media Council (ZMC), which has replaced the Media and Information Commission (MIC), is supposed to issue newspapers with licences and thereby open the way for the independent press to re-emerge. The promise has hung in the air for months without materialising. “Let’s be clear about this,” said lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa. “The ZMC is there to save the media. It should be doing its job”

Created in 2009, the ZMC did not officially get under way until its inaugural meeting on 18 March 2010. It was only after months of prevarication and negotiations between Zanu-PF, President Mugabe’s party, and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s party, that the ZMC’s nine commissioners were named. They are Godfrey Majonga (chairman), Nqobile Nyathi (deputy chairperson), Chris Mutsvangwa, Matthew Takaona, Chris Mhike, Henry Muradzikwa, Lawton Hikwa, Miriam Madziwa and Millicent Mombeshora.

They are the ones whose job it is to receive and examine the applications submitted by news media. At a meeting with the editors of all of Zimbabwe’s newspapers at the start of March, no less a person than the president asked the ZMC to begin to work, fulfil its role and create a space for the media. The prime minister, for his part, insisted that nothing is tying the hands of the ZMC’s commissioners. Nonetheless, nothing is happening and it looks as though the ZMC is playing for time.

Reporters Without Borders hoped to meet with the ZMC’s chairman, Godfrey Majonga, during its visit. Several requests for an interview were made, but without success. At first, Majonga insisted that he had nothing to add to what was said at the 18 March inaugural meeting. Then he said he could not give an interview on his own as the ZMC was a collective commission. “He has held the position for only seven days,” the deputy media and information minister, Timba, said. “Give him a bit of time.”

Jethro Goko, the head of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), the company that owns The Daily News and The Daily News on Sunday, pointed out that it obtained favourable high court ruling in 2006. “We are ready,” he said. “We are just waiting for the ZMC to give us our licence but we will not reapply because a ruling confirmed four years ago shows we have everything in order. The ANZ does not have a lot of resources but we are dedicated to providing the Zimbabwean people with credible quality newspapers.”

Another privately-owned daily, NewsDay, decided not to wait for its licence in order to start working. When the newspaper threatened to begin publishing without a licence in 2009, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of media and information, George Charamba, warned that its journalists would be arrested. NewsDay has gone ahead and hired journalists, who are currently producing a four-page insert that is distributed inside the weeklies The Standard and The Zimbabwe Independent.

Government control of state media, persecution of independent media

Meanwhile, until the ZMC starts issuing licences, the media landscape continues to be dormant and subject to heavy government control.

In the state-owned media, for example, the hands of the journalists are tied by their editors, who take their orders from the government. Amid a constant fear of unfair dismissal, self-censorship is widespread. Six journalists employed by the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) were fired in 2008 for allegedly not giving President Mugabe enough coverage during the election campaign.

ZBC’s management took radio presenter Godfrey Gweje off the air in March 2010 for making “subversive political comments” after he criticised the low pay (189 US dollars a month) received by civil servants, then on strike for better pay. The previous week, Wellington Toni was fired as the Sunday News sports editor for referring on a website to corrupt practices in the regional state-owned weekly The Chronicle.

“We cannot express our opinions,” a state media representative told Reporters Without Borders on condition of anonymity. “We are men, with weaknesses, and we are afraid.”

Freelance journalists and those working for the privately-owned weeklies are often harassed or threatened. Constantine Chimakure and Vincent Kahiya of the Zimbabwe Independent, for example were arrested together in May 2009 and were subsequently the target of judicial proceedings for a year before charges were finally dropped.

Freelance journalist Stanley Gama was summoned to Harare central police station on 30 March, just two days after communication minister Webster Shamu said the harassment of journalists should stop, and was questioned by Chief Superintendent Chrispen Makedenge about his sources for a story in the Zimbabwe edition of South Africa’s Sunday Times about a cabinet minister’s alleged corrupt practices.

Two months before that, on 15 January, Makedenge made a death threat against freelance journalist Stanley Kwenda over one of his articles for the privately-owned newspaper The Zimbabwean. Makedenge, who has been implicated in the abduction of journalists and MDC members, told Kwenda: “You are not going to last this weekend.” Kwenda fled the country.

Nick Maunze, an official in the Zimbabwean government’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), publicly threatened Godfrey Mutimba, The Standard’s correspondent in the south-eastern province of Masvingo, in March. “You must be careful young man, very, very careful because I will reduce you to nothing,” he told Mutimba. “I do not care what your papers write about me; they are useless and will not change anything. What I need to tell you and your other reporters is that you should know that I have dealt with even bigger fish which had thick heads.”

Referring to opposition activist Job Sikhala, Maunze added: “I am the one who forced Sikhala to drink urine when he was arrested and it is not hard for me at all to deal with an even smaller fish and useless reporters like you. What will you do to me?”

These are just a few examples of the threats and harassment to which Zimbabwean journalists are routinely subjected.

Hounded news photographer Shadreck Anderson Manyere

Kidnapped in December 2008, freelance news photographer Shadreck Anderson Manyere, was subjected to an ordeal comparable to what was inflicted on leading journalist and human rights activist Jestina Mukoko during his next four months in detention. Charged with banditry, sabotage and terrorism, he was held in appalling conditions, brutally interrogated and tortured.

In the year since his release on 18 April 2009, he has had to report to a police station in the capital under pain of being arrested again. This is a major handicap for a freelancer as it means he cannot accept a job in the provinces.

At the same time, Manyere is hounded whenever he works in the capital. He was arrested while covering a demonstration by members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) on 18 January 2010 and then released without charge. On 24 February, he was forced to delete his photos of a demonstration by pro-Zanu-PF activists against western government sanctions against party leaders including President Mugabe. He was arrested at a Harare court on 1 March for taking pictures of detainees as they arrived to face charges of plotting against the government. Told he did not have permission, he was taken to the central police station. He was released the next day after paying a 20-dollar fine but his camera was confiscated.

Manyere told Reporters Without Borders: “Whenever I cover a demonstration or an event, the police ask me: ‘Are you working for The Herald or for ZBC?’ As soon as I reply that I am a freelancer, they try to confiscate my camera and they often take me to a police station.”

“They are after him, that’s obvious,” lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa said. “They want to push him to the limit and force him to give up his profession.”

Three years of silence about cameraman Edward Chikomba’s death

On 23 March, the last day of Reporters Without Borders’ visit, the police raided a Harare art gallery and removed more than 60 photos that had been put on display by the human rights group ZimRights. Most of the photos were taken in the run-up to the 2008 elections and showed the use of violence to disperse demonstrations. They also showed the current prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, with his face swollen from being beaten while in detention.

Freelance cameraman Edward Chikomba, a former employee of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), was one of the people who took the photos of Tsvangirai. He was found dead in Darwendale (60 km west of Harare) on 31 March 2007, two days after being kidnapped by four men suspected of being intelligence officials. They went to his home in Glen View, a high density suburb of Harare, and forced him to get into their four-wheel-drive vehicle at gunpoint.

Chikomba was accused of selling his footage of Tsvangirai to foreign news media. Since leaving the production team of “Vision 30,” broadcast by ZBC until 2001, Chikomba had been making documentaries independently for individuals or news media.

According to his wife, who witnessed his abduction, Chikomba knew he was in danger. “I am dead,” he said, when he saw the four men arrive outside their house.

No proper, independent investigation has ever been carried out into his death.

Given the current state of the Zimbabwean media and the urgent need to restore press freedom, Reporters Without Borders makes the following recommendations:

  • To the Zimbabwean government: Put a stop to the frequent police violence against journalists, quickly foster a climate more favourable to free expression for privately-owned independent newspapers, and open up broadcasting, currently monopolised by ZBC. The two parties, Zanu-PF and MDC, must work in a more determined and concerted fashion. It is time to pass from words to action.
  • To the Zimbabwe Media Council: Immediately issue licences to newspapers that request them and conduct itself in a more transparent manner by ceasing to be uncommunicative about its activities, which are not known to the public.
  • To the international community (SADC, African Union, European Union, UN and bilateral aid agencies): Put more pressure on Zimbabwe to ensure that opening up the media sector is one of the reform timetable’s priorities.
  • To South African President Jacob Zuma (as the person mandated by the SADC to ensure full implementation of the Global Political Agreement, a power-sharing agreement between Zanu-PF and MDC): Be firmer with President Mugabe and Zanu-PF. By not cooperating fully with the MDC, President Mugabe and his party are the source of several obstacles to implementation of the power-sharing agreement and are thereby preventing Zimbabwe from advancing with determination down the road of democratisation.
  • To Zimbabwean journalists: Try to avoid the very marked polarisation of political life by not taking a pro-Zanu-PF or pro-MDC position and by respecting the principles of neutrality and objectivity in order to provide the Zimbabwean people with better reporting.

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