A man carries a street sign in Harare as protesters clash with police on August 26. Journalists have been beaten and detained while covering unrest in Zimbabwe. (Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)
A man carries a street sign in Harare as protesters clash with police on August 26. Journalists have been beaten and detained while covering unrest in Zimbabwe. (Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)

Journalists caught in crosshairs amid protests and unrest in Zimbabwe

A photograph of freelance journalist Lucy Yasini trying to ward off an attack by police while covering a protest in Harare was circulated on social media last week. A day later, a photograph was shared of two reporters, Obey Manayiti and Robert Tapfumaneyi, in the back of a police truck after their arrest. The incidents signaled to the world that Zimbabwean journalists are once again targets as police try to clamp down on widespread protests.

Since early August there have been several cases of journalists finding themselves in the crosshairs while covering anti-government protests in Zimbabwe which, according to reports, has seen some of the worst violence in two decades. Several photographers and journalists with whom CPJ spoke said they have been beaten and harassed by protesters and police, and detained while covering the unrest.

Among the incidents reported to CPJ are:

August 3. Police assaulted Haru Mutasa, of Al Jazeera English, Tendai Masiyazviripo, who was described as a BBC journalist, Chris Mahove, an African News Agency reporter, freelancer Tony Manyangadze, and Idah Mhetu, from the Financial Gazette, while they were covering a protest over government plans to issue bond notes. Manyangadze’s camera was also confiscated. Mahove said he was beaten and kicked by riot police. When he dropped his recorder it was picked up by police and efforts to retrieve it “invited more beatings,” he said. The journalist said he was treated at a local clinic and, with the help of the Zimbabwean chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, made an application in a judge’s chamber to have the police pay for the recorder and compensation for the beatings.

August 24. Freelance journalist Yasini said she was assaulted by a riot policeman in Harare while covering a march by the youth wing of the opposition party MDC-T youth. Freelance journalist Tendai Mandimika was arrested while covering the same protest and charged alongside 12 protesters with public violence, according to local journalists and reports. Mandimika, who had returned to Zimbabwe with his wife after working abroad, had been accredited three days earlier. He was denied bail on August 29 and is due back in court on September 12. The Zimbabwean chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa said it was likely it would help him appeal to the High Court. Also on August 24, a vehicle belonging to state broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, was set alight by protesters.

August 25. Police detained Newsday reporter Manayiti and freelance reporter Tapfumaneyi, who were covering a protest by members of the clergy. The pair were released without charge soon after, according to reports.

August 26. Freelance photojournalist James Jemwa was charged with incitement after covering a demonstration in Harare. According to Zimbabwe Daily, Jemwa’s lawyer, Jeremiah Bhamu, told the court a group of suspected Zanu-PF supporters grabbed the journalist, took his phone, press card, and camera, and beat him before handing Jemwa over to police. The lawyer told the Harare Magistrate’s Court today that Jemwa has a swollen face and injured hand. His bail hearing is due to continue tomorrow. Mlondolozi Ndlovu, a freelancer, was also accosted by protesters on August 26, while taking photographs. Malvern Mkudu, a fellow journalist said the protesters accused Ndlovu of being a state agent, but allowed him to leave when he showed his press card. When the situation became tense, protesters grabbed him and began beating him. Ndlovu was rescued by someone in the crowd who recognized him and vouched that he was working for the privately owned media, Mkudu, who was also covering the protest, said.

The journalists with whom CPJ spoke said the situation is deteriorating and that they fear it will get much worse.

Mkudu said tensions have escalated amid anti-government demonstrations and freelance journalists were more prone to being harassed. “Freelancers are associated with what government says is a regime-change agenda so there is hostility towards us. Ordinary people also think we are state agents and treat us with suspicion. We also do not have institutional backing in case of arrests or injury,” he said.

Mahove, who writes for the African News Agency, agreed. “Those journalists working for foreign media and independent newspapers were targeted by the state as they were viewed as agents of regime change,” he said. “In a way, the government is riled by reports of its oppression of citizens coming out in foreign media platforms and is fighting back by arresting and harassing the journalists, in some cases forcing them to delete any footage of the disturbances they have covered.”

Yasini, a former state media broadcast journalist who turned freelance in 1996, said, “Journalists are not trusted 100 percent due to the polarization that started in 2000 after the emergence of strong opposition, the MDC. There are communities that do not trust the private media and vice versa. I experienced it from both ends. I would be harassed by citizens at some events simply because I was in the public broadcaster. Now it’s those in government and other communities that do not trust me simply because I am now operating as an independent journalist.”

All of the journalists with whom CPJ spoke said they were also concerned about a proposed Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill. If it becomes law, it would have serious consequences for media freedom and free speech in Zimbabwe. The draft law, among other things, would allow police to seize smartphones, laptops and other gadgets to prevent people from communicating via social media.

Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe warned protesters on August 26 there would be no “Arab Spring” to topple his government, Reuters reported. “They are thinking that what happened in the Arab Spring is going to happen in this country, but we tell them that it is not going to happen here,” Mugabe said, referring to a series of uprisings that toppled leaders across the Arab world as protesters turned to social media.