New York, August 23, 2001—President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) government have intensified the harsh crackdown on the independent press ahead of next year’s presidential elections. In the last two weeks, several journalists in Harare have faced detention and interrogation, threats of criminal prosecution, and other forms of intimidation.
“We are deeply concerned about the safety of our colleagues in the Zimbabwean independent press,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “The Mugabe regime should not assume that it can cling to power by intimidating journalists whose only ‘crime’ is reporting on the government’s increasingly outrageous behavior.”
In the most recent development, Mark Chavunduka, editor of the independent weekly Standard, was called into Harare Central Police Station yesterday to record a so-called warn and caution statement. According to sources at the Standard, the summons came in response to an August 19 Standard article that was reprinted from the London Sunday Times.
The story, titled “Paranoid Mugabe Dines With Ghost,” reports that President Robert Mugabe feels haunted by the ghost of a leader in the independence movement who died in a suspicious car accident more than 20 years ago. According to the article, many Zimbabweans believe that Mugabe was linked to the death of Josiah Tongogara, a charismatic guerrilla leader who was widely expected to become president in 1980.
Police told Chavunduka, who was accompanied to the station by Standard lawyer Innocent Chagonda, that he faced criminal defamation charges and would be summoned to court if the attorney general decided to prosecute. Police declined to name the complainant but stated categorically that it was neither President Robert Mugabe nor Information Minister Jonathan Moyo.
Mirror journalists questioned
On August 21, Harare police summoned news editor Wallace Chuma and reporter Constantine Chimakure of the independent weekly Zimbabwe Mirror to record a “warn and caution” statement.
Authorities questioned the two journalists for about an hour in connection with an August 17 article titled “War Vets Forced Us to Loot—Farm Workers.” The article reported on complaints by farm workers in Mashonaland West Province that independence-war veterans were orchestrating the looting of local farms, and that police were assisting them.
Police told Chuma and Chimakure they faced charges of “publishing materials likely to cause alarm and despondency” under the draconian Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA), say sources at the Mirror.
Journalist on government “hit list”
Also on August 21, police summoned Basildon Peta, news editor for the independent Financial Gazette and secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, for questioning. Two days earlier, The Standard had reported that Peta topped a “hit list” compiled by the law and order section of the Zimbabwe police and the Central Intelligence Organization, which oversees internal security.
Peta, who has repeatedly criticized President Mugabe for press freedom violations, has endured surveillance and telephone threats over the last year. When contacted by CPJ, he said that the list caused him “a great deal of fear” because he had confirmed its existence independently.
Other journalists on the hit list reportedly include Chavunduka, Standard news editor Cornelius Nduna, and Geoff Nyarota, editor-in-chief of the independent Daily News.
The campaign continues
The spate of arrests and threats this week follows last week’s arrest of four journalists from the Daily News.
Geoff Nyarota, assistant editor Bill Saidi, and reporters John Gambanga and Sam Munyavi were arrested on August 15. The arrest followed the publication of an article the previous day alleging that police had taken part in a looting spree on commercial farms in Mashonaland West Province over the weekend.
Police released the four journalists that same evening. The next day, police again arrested Nyarota and his three colleagues. They were charged with “publishing subversive material” under Section 44 of LOMA and then released.