Freelance journalist Frank Chikowore visited CPJ this week
after receiving the Tully Center Free Speech Award
CPJ: Like many
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
Zimbabwean journalists have told CPJ that the election period was the worst
time for journalists in
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
CPJ: What is the situation for journalists like now?
FC: I think the
situation is getting worse for journalism in
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
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
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
CPJ: What advice
do you have for journalists who want to report in
FC: The very
first step is to let other journalists know where we are going. The notion of
scoops is no longer there in