Defending journalism in Zimbabwe
Beatrice Mtetwa, a prominent media lawyer, has defended many journalists in Zimbabwe who have been detained and harassed. In a country where the law is used as a weapon against independent journalists, Mtetwa has defended journalists and argued for press freedom, all at great personal risk.
This year, Mtetwa won acquittals for Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds, journalists with The Sunday Telegraph of London, who were arrested outside a polling station in Zimbabwe during the April parliamentary election. The government of President Robert Mugabe, which severely restricted independent coverage of the vote, had charged them with working without accreditation.
Mtetwa has worked on behalf of the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s sole independent daily newspaper until it was closed by the government in 2003. She continues to defend the newspaper’s journalists, many of whom face criminal charges for their work.
In October 2003, Mtetwa was arrested on specious allegations of drunken driving. She was taken to a police station, where she was held for three hours, beaten and choked, then released without charge. Although she was unable to speak for two days as a result of the assault, she returned to the police station on the third day, with medical evidence in hand, to file charges.
Following are transcribed excerpts from a videotaped interview with Mtetwa, airing as part of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Awards Dinner:
A: It’s also the physical aspect of feeling unsafe. You don’t know what’s going to happen, because people get arrested. We know that most of the journalists don’t even get prosecuted at the end of the day, but we know of a lot of journalists, or a lot of other media practitioners who get arrested, locked up, and are never charged at the end of the day. And everybody operates under the fear of being arrested, even if there’s no case against them, because by the time you go to court, you would have spent your couple of days in Zimbabwe’s notorious prisons.
Q: Why have all foreign journalists been kicked out, and why have they been denied accreditation?
A: Well it’s part of their attempt to control the flow of information to the outside world. It is perceived that [foreign journalists] basically represent foreign interests, and they will not, therefore, report as we are supposed to be [reporting] in a certain way that suits the government.
Q: What sort of environment do you operate in?
A: If I feel that I’m being followed, for instance by state security agents, I challenge them. I say, “Look, I mean it’s pointless you following me, because right at the minute you’re following me, I’m not going to go to where you expect me to go. But secondly, it would make life so much easier if you just said, ‘We want to know where so-and-so is,’ or something like that. And we deal that straight on.”
So I think I confront the danger immediately before it happens. I always make sure that if, for instance, I’m called in the middle of the night to a scene that is potentially dangerous, I make sure that there are as many media practitioners as possible, particularly to record what will happen there. And in the glare of cameras I find that people don’t want to do what they would want to do. So in a lot of ways I think I’ve been lucky, and I haven’t received as much harassment as one would have expected, or as much as other human rights defenders have had.
Q: What is your dream?
A: My dream is for a totally free and independent judiciary in Zimbabwe, for a media that is able to really carry out its mandate without restrictions, the opening up of the media space, the airwaves. I feel really strongly that the current situation–where it is one clique that can determine what sort of information can go out there–is really one of the root causes of our problems right now. If information cannot flow freely and if people, whether in business or elsewhere, cannot get that information, I cannot imagine how the economic situation can improve.
Remarks on accepting award
I would like to thank CPJ and all those who contributed to my nomination for this award. I particularly thank CPJ for keeping the story of Zimbabwe’s persecuted media alive.
I would like to accept this award on behalf of all the independent journalists in Zimbabwe who continue to work despite the threat of arrest and imprisonment.
It is the courage of these journalists that has made the award possible for me.
The illegal detention and torture of two journalists in 1999 marked the beginning of an unprecedented clampdown on the free press in Zimbabwe. This came as a new opposition party posed a strong challenge to the government, and a new independent newspaper, the Daily News, was reporting on critical issues.
After the government lost a constitutional referendum in 2000, it stepped up its war on the independent press. It introduced new laws under which it became a crime to practise journalism in Zimbabwe without government accreditation.
These laws have been used to close several independent newspapers. Countless journalists have been left without jobs, while dozens have also fled the country under threat of arrest and prosecution. Today, Zimbabwe holds the dubious honor of having the highest number of journalists in exile.
Zimbabwe now has only two independent weeklies with limited circulation. But they have to work under the permanent threat of having their licenses withdrawn, and that inevitably leads to self-censorship.
The absence of an independent daily newspaper or independent radio means that people in the country are not informed properly about what is going on: human rights abuses, food shortages, petrol shortages, the collapse of the health and education systems, and the breakdown of the rule of law.
The restrictions mean that the outside world is equally deprived of information on Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s embattled independent media is in desperate need of support. I plead with all of you here tonight to continue doing everything you can to restore media freedom in Zimbabwe,
And that includes engaging regional bodies and the African Union.
Without media freedom, all other fundamental rights of Zimbabweans will continue to be eroded.
Again, thank you very much for your support.