Q & A: Reporting in a ‘culture of fear’

Freelance journalist Frank Chikowore visited CPJ this week after receiving the Tully Center Free Speech Award at Syracuse University. Chikowore received the award for his brave, ongoing reporting on the crisis in Zimbabwe. He has worked for two newspapers in Zimbabwe, including The Nation and the Weekly Times, which was closed down in 2005.

CPJ: Like many journalists in Zimbabwe, you were targeted by the state for your reporting during the election period last year.

Frank Chikowore: Yes, in early April I was arrested as I was covering the strike, organized by the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change to demand the release of presidential and parliamentary election results. The election was held on March 29 and opposition and other civic groups were incensed by the fact that the electoral commission took so long to announce those results. So the opposition called for a strike to force the authorities to release the election results. For covering that strike I was arrested by police.

CPJ: What charges did they use to arrest you?

FC: The manner in which my charges kept on changing shows the illegality of the arrest. First I was arrested for lacking accreditation, but I was duly accredited as a journalist and these charges could not stand. After spending seven days under police custody I was facing charges of 78 counts of “attempted murder” (this is after the police changed the charges three times already). However, the charges changed again to everyone’s surprise when I appeared in the dock to say that I was facing “public violence charges”

CPJ: Many sources told us that you entered the courtroom with your mouth tied in a gag. Why?

FC: I did tie my mouth during the court process. I am convinced that press freedom is   under siege in Zimbabwe. Basically, I was being denied the right to express myself and I thought this was a good way of protesting. The state had found it fit to deny me my rights, which are enshrined in the national constitution. What they were doing actually strengthened my resolve. I was trying to send a statement, because if you continue to keep quiet you suffer silently. I thought the best way to speak was by not speaking.

CPJ: Many Zimbabwean journalists have told CPJ that the election period was the worst time for journalists in Zimbabwe’s history. Would you agree with that assessment?

FC: One has to understand the conditions the media was operating under before March 29 when the presidential and general elections were held. There was no violence prior to the first round of the elections. But when President Mugabe realized he would lose the election, he started to use violence as a tactic to ensure his critics were forced to vote for him during the runoff election period. The media was also a scapegoat. The ruling party intensified the use of violence against opposition members, civic rights groups and those who promote free expression. It was a sad time for journalists in Zimbabwe.

CPJ: What is the situation for journalists like now?

FC: I think the situation is getting worse for journalism in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans are suffering silently because the foreign media is not allowed inside the country. There is no one able to expose what is going on. The overall situation has gotten worse in terms of the economy, politics. etc. A journalist, Anderson [Shadreck] Manyere, is in prison. The government continues to trump up charges against civic rights activist as well as journalists. Now journalists do not know who is next. It creates a culture of fear among journalists. Now Anderson is facing all kinds of charges–banditry, insurgency.

Since the closure of the country’s four major newspapers, we have seen an increase in the number of freelance journalists as well as qualified journalists coming from universities and colleges. The problem is, these journalists have nowhere to work. They are forced to roam the streets with nowhere to submit their stories to. The government is determined to crush any media organization that is deemed too critical of the government. Until this is rectified, press freedom will continue to be under siege.

CPJ: Has the quality of reporting in Zimbabwe deteriorated?

FC: Journalists now use pseudonyms to protect their identity. If you dare to use your real name you risk losing your license. Now everyone is very careful in what they write and what they say. There are still a few critical reports in the few private newspapers but it is not enough. They do not criticize fully, fearing closure.

I must say the issue of journalists using pseudonyms has also created problems. There are no checks and balances on the stories written. The persecution of journalists must stop so that they can do their work without any hindrance. For as long as the state continues to muzzle the press, we will continue to see these half-baked stories. Now we also have a situation where news goes online without verification of facts since people are afraid to contact sources. The culture of poor journalism is being created by the state.

CPJ: What information sources do Zimbabwean citizens have access to?

FC: With the continuing economic meltdown it is becoming harder and harder to access information, particularly outside of Harare. It is now expensive to buy a newspaper. The state newspapers are charging in foreign currency when the majority of the country’s work force is paid in Zimbabwean dollars. Instead of buying a newspaper people will buy a loaf of bread. As long as we don’t address the economic crisis the information gap will continue to widen. No one can afford a radio receiver.

We now have what are called “pirate” radio stations” such as Studio 7 in the United States and Short Wave Radio based in London and Voice of the People in Cape Town, South Africa. All are based outside of Zimbabwe–as if we do not have enough land within the country. The only way the government can deal with pirate radio stations is by opening the airwaves. License private and community radio stations and then you get people within the country reporting what is happening on the ground. Other than having exiled Zimbabwean journalists who reside far away and cannot know the full story, it would be better if the government opened up the airwaves.

CPJ: What advice do you have for journalists who want to report in Zimbabwe?

FC: The very first step is to let other journalists know where we are going. The notion of scoops is no longer there in Zimbabwe. Now we must work as a team. When we go in groups it provides a little protection in the sense that at least someone will know what has transpired. For local journalists, I think it’s important to say that, in a nutshell, no story is worth dying for. If you have some security concerns, you might as well decide not to cover that story. And for foreign journalists trying to come into Zimbabwe, the safest way to do things is to approach the authorities to get permission otherwise you’ll lend yourself into trouble.