“Like a Walk in a Minefield”

Results of Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections signal new dangers for independent journalists.

July 13, 2000 — I was bleeding from the nose. My whole body was swollen and covered with wounds. My legs were so swollen that I could hardly walk on my own. I could hear my editor, Mark Chavunduka, screaming from the torture cell next to mine.

We were beaten with wooden planks, forced to roll on wet tarmac. Our heads were forced into a canvas bag full of water. The military applied electric shocks all over our bodies, genitals included. Our tormentors told us that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe had signed our death warrants, and I believed them.

This horrific treatment was meted out in January 1999 because we refused to divulge the sources for a story I wrote and published earlier that month in The Standard, a story covering the arrest of 23 military officials. But practicing independent journalism in the year 2000 in Zimbabwe is still like a walk in a minefield. You do not know how dangerous your next step will be.

The historic parliamentary elections on June 24 and 25 in which the Zanu PF party lost 57 seats to the Movement for Democratic Change Party (MDC) were preceded by directives to journalists from the state’s minister of information, posts and telecommunication, Chen Chimutengwende. Elsewhere in the world these “instructions” might be called threats.

In April, Minister Chimutengwende reminded editors of the state-owned newspapers and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation that as state employees they were first obligated to support the current administration’s policy and views. He also reminded them that the ruling party, Zanu PF, was bigger than government itself.

Chimutengwende’s pre-election message was unambiguous: Editors from the state-owned media were to write positive stories about the party, in which the minister himself is deputy secretary for information and publicity. State media were also “assigned” to discredit the opposition party MDC and its increasingly powerful former trade union boss, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Threatened with the loss of their jobs, journalists were forced into a professionally compromised position. They wrote what they were told to, and coverage in the state media was heavily biased in favor of the ruling Zanu PF.

Even the Supreme Court order which compelled the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation to provide a level playing field in the elections campaign was ignored. MDC commercials did not air on state broadcast channels.

As for members of the independent press, the Mugabe regime labeled us “enemies of the state.” It was said that foreign journalists created negative publicity that purposefully tarnished Zimbabwe’s image abroad.

The amount of legislation inhibiting freedom of the press is considerable. The illegal detention of my editor and me and our torture in January 1999 was allowed, according to state officials, under section 50, (2)(a) of the draconian Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA). LOMA makes it a criminal offense to publish anything “likely to cause alarm or despondency.” A violation of LOMA carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

The authorities took us into custody for recounting in print incidents surrounding the arrests of military officials who were accused of plotting the overthrow of Mugabe. Mark was held for 10 days, and I was held for two at the notorious Cranborne Barracks. When the military officials who had tortured us handed us back over to the civilian police, we initially were denied access to a medical exam. Eventually, the arresting civilian officer, Inspector Boysen Matema, drove us to a government hospital, where we were treated.

We appeared in court the following morning, January 21, 1999, and were released after each of us paid a Z$10 000 (US$260) bail and surrendered our travel documents.

The incarceration, however, gave us the opportunity to challenge the constitutional validity of LOMA, before the Supreme Court, which upheld our application on May 21, 2000. We have just reappeared in court–on July 6, 2000–and the statedropped its charges against us.

Limits on press freedom are far from contracting, however. Another–and perhaps even more pernicious–restriction on the media is Zimbabwe’s Official Secrets Act, which makes the publication–or even receipt of–information not authorized by the government an imprisonable offense. This means we are breaking the law any time we use sources not approved by the government to write a story. Ironically, we have the constitutional right to receive information, but the Official Secrets Act makes us criminals for doing so from unsanctioned sources.

Zimbabwe also has the law of criminal defamation, which imposes strict liability on the press. Politicians use this law to foster a menacing environment for the media–particularly when the media is trying to expose corruption within the ruling party or the ranks of its leadership. The fact that the Constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees freedom of expression is rendered moot, since that same constitution does not explicitly protect the press’s freedom of expression.

Government officials continue to say that they have no intention of meddling with the state press; but in fact, the state-owned media is run from Linquenda House, the headquarters for the ministry of communication, and all appointments to senior positions are made here.

As for the independent press, the government has recoiled from a recent barrage of criticism on this front, threatening new restrictions. The ministry has the power to withhold the accreditation of any journalist; this means any state or independent journalist who works without permission from Linquenda House will be committing a crime.

But there is hope. With the opposition’s impressive showing in the elections, the Zanu PF government will face new scrutiny in any new efforts to introduce laws that hinder press freedom. Zimbabwe may yet become a true democratic society.

Ray Choto is a reporter at The Standard in Harare, Zimbabwe and a recipient this year of a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University.