HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwean journalists are taking the heat again, as President Robert Mugabe clamps down on the press ahead of watershed elections next year.
Human rights lawyers and media freedom groups warn that the crackdown on the press is serious.
Police are increasingly using criminal defamation laws to arrest journalists from privately-owned newspapers for reporting on the business dealings of Mugabe's allies.
On Dec. 2, plainclothes detectives swooped on Xolisani Ncube, a reporter with the Daily News and his editor Stanley Gama after the newspaper published a story claiming that Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo bragged about his wealth to a delegation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The delegation was meeting the minister to discuss housing projects for the poor.
The two journalists were detained and questioned for more than eight hours before being released “while investigations continue.” Ncube, a young reporter fresh from college, was arrested in front of his visiting mother.
Two weeks earlier, police detained overnight two journalists from The Standard, a privately-owned weekly, for a story on the collapse of a medical insurance firm owned by Munyaradzi Kereke, a special advisor to central bank governor Gideon Gono.
All four journalists are being charged under criminal defamation laws that journalists' unions and lawyers say are being used to muzzle the media.
Alec Muchadehama, the lawyer representing the Daily News journalists, described the arrest as an abuse of the law to punish journalists who poke their noses into the affairs of Mugabe allies. He said that despite the coalition government with long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai that was formed in February 2009, Mugabe remains in control of the security sector, including the police, which he is using against the press.
“It is a disturbing trend we are witnessing,” said Muchadehama, who is also a campaigner for media freedom. “Criminal defamation is becoming the new front in our war against media repression. Why lock up journalists in police cells on issues that are best solved using civil lawsuits?”
Long tim opposition leader and now Mugabe coalition government partner, Morgan Tsvangirai and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party at the weekend said it “is worried by the continued arrests of journalists from the independent media with investigative journalism now being turned into a criminalized profession.”
Police spokesman Oliver Mandipaka defended the arrests. “It is just the law taking its course,” he said.
Police have arrested close to a dozen journalists in the past five months, mainly for covering stories deemed offensive to the Mugabe government.
Journalists from newspapers critical of Mugabe’s three-decade rule have been prey for state agents and pro-Mugabe militia since the year 2000 when a newly formed MDC posed a potent threat to Mugabe’s continued hold on power.
The Daily News has just started operations after having been banned in 2003, a time Mugabe and his allies publicly branded the paper an enemy. Its printing press had also just been bombed. Police have not yet arrested anyone for the bombing.
In its first months after it was formed in February 2009, the shaky coalition government brought a relative relaxation of Mugabe's control of the press that resulted in the licensing of several privately-owned newspapers to compete in a media market dominated by the state.
Mugabe, however, remains in direct control of broadcasting airwaves and sparked a row with Tsvangirai two weeks ago after the only independent radio licenses to be awarded since independence from Britain 1980 were given to Mugabe's backers.
Tensions are rising again in Zimbabwe as Mugabe pushes for elections in 2012 to break out of a coalition described by both partners as unworkable.
Tsvangirai says he will boycott elections if they are held before the implementation of democratic reforms to ensure a free and fair vote.
Heightened talk of elections has left journalists fearing for the worst.
“It all has to do with elections. Mugabe and his loyal police are finding more ways of silencing the media. Journalists in this country are at their most vulnerable when politicians begin talking of elections,” said Njabulo Ncube, chairman of the Zimbabwe chapter of the media freedom watchdog, the Media Institute of Southern Africa.
Mugabe, having just won a fresh endorsement to lead his party into the next elections, is holding Zanu-PF's annual conference this week to map out election strategies.
“It seems their strategy on the media is pretty clear. Journalists will have to be vigilant,” said Foster Dongozi, secretary-general of main journalists’ body, the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists.
International organizations such as the United States-based Freedom House say conditions for journalists have remained treacherous despite promises of reform at the inception of the coalition government.
The organization’s Freedom of the Press index for 2011 notes that the media landscape in Zimbabwe remains repressive, with "near-total government control of the broadcast sector, foot dragging on attempts to open new broadcast outlets, and continued legal and physical harassment of independent journalists.”