How diamond rings silence Zimbabwe’s foreign press

The Hong Kong police announced on Monday they would investigate the alleged assault on photographer Richard Jones by Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, while she was on vacation. On January 15, Jones claimed Mugabe ordered her bodyguard to hold the photographer down while she punched him repeatedly in the face near Hong Kong’s exclusive Shangri-la Hotel, according to wire reports. 

Jones, on a freelance assignment for London’s daily The Sunday Times, managed to catch Mugabe outside one of Hong Kong’s famous shopping centers in the Kowloon Peninsula. The photos were meant for a story showing the contrast between the first lady’s extravagant lifestyle and the plight of people in Zimbabwe, Times correspondent Michael Sheridan reported.

The 42-year-old photographer managed to see this contrast up close and personal. Jones had nine cuts across his face from Mugabe punching him repeatedly, according to wire reports. “She had several diamond rings that were acting like knuckledusters,” Jones told The Times.

Many Zimbabwean journalists are all too familiar with such rough treatment. Photojournalist Shadreck Manyere has been in police custody since last November, despite asserting that he has been tortured. Journalists who spoke to CPJ last year referred to the post-election recount as the worst period for journalists in Zimbabwe’s history, as state-sanctioned violence mounted. But Mugabe’s regime has learned to use other, less obvious measures to silence the press.

According to the newspaper, Mugabe, known as the “the First Shopper of Zimbabwe,” and her entourage spent 2,000 pounds (US$2,780) per day on luxuries like a Jimmy Choo bag while her country faces unprecedented inflation rates that have forced Zimbabwe’s central bank to introduce notes denominated in trillions. Where does Mugabe get diamond-encrusted rings in such a dire economy?

In some small part, Mugabe and his friends may fatten their coffers by bilking those they despise most: foreign journalists and Zimbabweans working for foreign media outlets. On January 6, the Zimbabwean government announced exorbitant hikes in fees for foreign media. Foreign correspondents in Zimbabwe must now pay an application fee of US$10,000 and a further US$22,000 for accreditation and permits. Even worse, local journalists working for foreign media organizations pay up to US$4,000 in fees–an amount few Zimbabweans can afford in light of the current economy.

Even local newspapers that are printed outside of Zimbabwe are a source of government income. The government imposed a massive price hike last June on the import tax paid by private weekly The Zimbabwean, which is printed in South Africa and shipped into the country. According to Editor Wilf Mbanga, the government increased the tax from 5 percent to 70 percent of the cover price. “We have had to reduce our circulation from 200,000 to 60,000,” Mbanga told CPJ. “It is obvious the government is trying to hurt us economically. This method is a lot easier form of censorship for the government instead of closing us down directly.”

The payments must be made in foreign currency, Mbanga said, in either American dollars or South African rands–money the ruling party could potentially use with exchange rates designed in their favor. Other papers imported into Zimbabwe from South Africa, such as The Sowetan, do not face the same import duty taxes for unclear reasons.

The net result of these arbitrary price hikes on the foreign press may be less critical reporting on a country whose situation grows more dire by the day. The U.N. estimates that over half the population is in need of food aid and more than 2,000 people have died of cholera since August. The ruling party’s war of attrition against critical journalism may eventually succeed in silencing such startling estimates where direct censorship against journalists in Zimbabwe has failed.