Harare - Zimbabwean journalists are no strangers to
harassment, but as fresh presidential elections near, there is a gloomy sense
the media is being thrust back into the firing line.
It is an all too familiar sequence of events:
A story is printed or broadcast that is damaging to
89-year-old President Robert Mugabe or his party, threats and denunciations
follow from government and its media mouthpieces, then come the arrests.
So it was last week for two journalists with the Zimbabwe
Independent, who were charged with publishing "false statements
prejudicial to the State".
Their crime was to print an article suggesting that security
personnel close to Mugabe were in talks with his rivals from Morgan
Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change.
The article quoted a person directly involved in the talks
and struck a nerve.
They were reportedly discussing how to ensure a smooth
transfer of power, should Tsvangirai defeat Mugabe and end his 33-year rule.
Security chiefs have made no secret of their loyalty to
Mugabe and authorities often react heavy-handedly to any suggestions to the
Government officials denied the talks took place.
The pair were later released, but the point was made.
13 journalists arrested
"Journalists will be casualties," said Foster
Dongozi, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists bleakly.
"We expect this to continue."
The union says a total of 13 journalists were arrested on
various charges last year, while several others received threats.
Three have been arrested so far this year, including a
reporter from a privately owned daily NewsDay who was arrested at a police
station after going there to seek protection following threats from a Zanu-PF
Many of the prosecutions stem from before the 2002 presidential
elections - when Tsvangirai presented a formidable challenge to Mugabe's rule
and the government passed a new media law which has been invoked to muzzle
Since then several newspapers have been forced to shut down
while journalists and foreign correspondents have been deported and harassed by
"A lot of politicians have a lot of things they are
doing behind the people's back and would want to suppress," said Dongozi.
The abuse of journalists will not be perpetrated only by
state actors but by political activists, Dongozi warned.
"We have those who want to get into power and those who
want to cling to power and journalists are targeted by both if they are
perceived to be a threat," said Dongozi.
Andrew Makoni, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human
Rights, said the arrests were nothing new, "we always experience an
escalation of such cases whenever there is an election".
"The aim is to make sure fewer and fewer journalists
are willing to take the risk and cover hot political issues and write articles
that will shape the opinions of the voters."
Ahead of polls expected as early as June, Tsvangirai is
insisting on a slew of reforms, including changes to how the media and security
services are governed.
He has vowed to abolish the Access to Information and
Protection of Privacy Act, which bars foreign journalists from working
permanently in the country.
Under the law, local journalists are compelled to register
annually with a government media commission and risk prosecution if they write
without accreditation or breach the media law.
But so far progress has proceeded at a glacial pace.
"This could be a precursor of more arrests of
journalists in the private media ahead of harmonised polls expected later this
year," said Brian Mangwende, chairperson of the Zimbabwe National Editors'
"That is why we want to see progress as soon as
possible regarding media reform so that journalists are not arrested at
While authorities keep an eye on the conventional media,
critics of Mugabe's regime have found a safe haven in social media such as
Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter as well as blogs.
Dumisani Muleya, one of the arrested Zimbabwe Independent
journalists, said while the authorities can monitor and crack down on newspaper
journalists, social media workers and activists will prove elusive.
"One wonders why authoritarian regimes like the one in
Zimbabwe still think they can successfully suppress the media in this digital
and social media age," said Muleya.