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Zimbabwe battles for media freedom after milestone election

Zimbabwean riot police officers stand guard in front of the headquarters of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Harare, 2 August 2018
Zimbabwean riot police officers stand guard in front of the headquarters of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Harare, 2 August 2018

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on ipi.media on 24 October 2018.

By Sanna Pekkonen, Helsingin Sanomat Foundation Journalism Fellow at IPI

Journalists in Zimbabwe continue to push for the reform of oppressive media laws and a freer media environment following the violent aftermath of the first general election in the country since Robert Mugabe's 37-year-long regime ended last year.

Although the historic vote, which saw the candidate of Mugabe's Zanu PF party, Emmerson Mnangagwa, elected president, was carried out peacefully at the end of July, the situation changed drastically after the release of election results was delayed. Protests broke out in Harare, the country's capital, with seven people reportedly killed by the military during the demonstrations.

Journalists were in the firing line as well.

"Harare was like a warzone and our safety came under threat. We needed to cover the story from the frontlines, but our security was not guaranteed", Faith Zaba, deputy editor of The Zimbabwe Independent, told the International Press Institute (IPI).

At least three journalists were assaulted and one detained by army officers and riot police while covering the demonstrations. Other journalists were ordered to switch off their cameras. Police also temporarily barred journalists from accessing a press conference held by the opposition bloc MDC Alliance, which had accused Zanu PF of electoral fraud.

NewsDay Editor Wisdom Mdzungairi said he received threatening phone calls from unregistered numbers after NewsDay reported that there had been more casualties in the Harare protests than officials had announced.

"I discovered that they were threats to silence us because we were on the story", Mdzungairi said in a recent interview with IPI.

Both The Zimbabwe Independent and NewsDay are published by Alpha Media Holdings, whose chairman is the long-time Mugabe critic Trevor Ncube. Ncube left Zimbabwe for South Africa in the 2000s following repeated harassment.


Attacks and harassment continue

Though the situation in the country has since calmed, attacks on the press persist, according to interviews and media reports. The threats and intimidation have emanated from both political parties as well as from the Zimbabwe police.

At the beginning of September, a number of journalists were threatened by politicians and supporters of both major political parties, Zanu PF and MDC Alliance, while covering protests linked to mayoral elections in Masvingo and Chitungwiza. A Zanu PF member of parliament also verbally attacked and threatened a journalist who asked for an interview during the Heroes Day commemoration in August.

Police have aggressively targeted journalists covering police operations. Last month, at least four journalists were detained after they refused to delete their footage of police raids in the streets of Harare. The footage showed police arresting vendors who were resisting an order to leave their stalls because of a cholera outbreak. This month, police officers harassed two journalists who were filming the arrest of illegal currency dealers in Harare and Masvingo. One journalist had his press card confiscated, and another was slapped and briefly detained.

On top of all these incidents, journalists from private media outlets were barred earlier this month from public hearings of an official commission investigation the post-election violence.

"There was a false sense of hope", Tabani Moyo, director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) in Zimbabwe, told IPI. "The status quo ante prevails."

MISA Zimbabwe Programmes Officer Kuda Hove also drew a distinction in terms of the types of attacks pre- and post-Mugabe.

"It is no longer the violations like beating up journalists - it has more to do with censorship, asking journalists to delete the photos and the video they take", Hove said.


Cautious hope for legal reform

In addition to attacks on journalists, oppressive media laws continue to hinder press freedom in Zimbabwe. When Robert Mugabe was ousted in a bloodless coup in November 2017 and Mnangagwa took office, hopes were high for a renewal of media legislation. However, no concrete progress has been made since then.

MISA Zimbabwe has frequently highlighted discrepancies between numerous media laws - including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) - and the Zimbabwean Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and the access to information.

"The authorities are not going to implement the media reforms as required by the constitution if journalists do not push for those reforms".

The Mnangagwa administration has promised to table reforms to BSA and AIPPA as well as a draft Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill during this parliamentary session. While the announcement was cautiously welcomed by journalists, the government has provided few details on the content or timeline of the amendments.

"The government has now mastered the art of saying and promising all the right things, but the delivery of those things is still something we are cautiously optimistic about", Hove said.

He added: "It is not the first time that the government has announced a number of laws that need to be revised when they are opening the parliament. AIPPA, for example, was declared not fit for purpose by the government officials themselves, but until now, we (still) see AIPPA in its present form."

Notably, the renewal of media legislation has been perceived an essential factor in democratizing the broadcasting sector and liberalizing radio and television ownership, which observers say is important in order to better balance a market that is dominated by a few powerful players.


Uniting for a freer media environment

Despite the ongoing problems, Zimbabwe journalists say conditions in some respects have markedly improved. Faith Zaba told IPI that there had been a significant reduction in the harassment of journalists since the coup last November. Apart from the post-electoral events, Zaba said journalists were able to cover the election freely and access areas that journalists would have normally avoided for fear of harassment.

"Generally, events of all the political parties were accessible to members of the media in the pre-election period", she said. "The fear and apprehension, which in past elections engulfed the election period, was absent."

Wisdom Mdzungairi agreed that journalists were able to access the information they needed during the election.

Mdzungairi stressed the need for more cooperation between journalists working for private and state media outlets in their pursuit for a freer media environment. In the past, solidarity between journalists has not always been strong.

"The authorities are not going to implement the media reforms as required by the constitution if journalists do not push for those reforms", he said. "I think it is time media stakeholders come together. We have to continue to push for the freedoms that we think we should enjoy."

The production of this article was supported with funds from the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation as part of the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation Fellowship Programme at IPI.

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