By Robert Tapfumaneyi
REPORTERS Without Borders (RSF) latest report, on promoting media rights, ranks Zimbabwe at number 130 out of 180 countries in 2021, a fall compared to its ranking at 126 in 2020.
The decline is also reflected in a report released this week by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe showing 52 journalists were either arrested, detained, harassed, or assaulted in 2020.
In its report, RSF said the rankings showed that nothing had changed in Zimbabwe in terms of media freedom since the days of the now-late strongman Robert Mugabe.
The RSF noted after becoming president in November 2017, Emmerson Mnangagwa had promised to reinforce the pillars of democracy, including media freedom.
“Mnangagwa was notorious for suppressing dissent when he was national security minister and his first steps with regard to press freedom have been marked more by promises than anything like the concrete progress for which those journalists had hoped,” RSF said.
However, the RSF said it was positive to note that access to information had improved in Zimbabwe while self-censorship had declined, but journalists were still often attacked or arrested mainly by law enforcement agents.
“The blocking of social media at the start of 2019, when major protests against a fuel price hike were being organised, shows that the regime has not renounced the use of cyber-censorship to prevent information from circulating,” the RSF report noted.
“Hopes of journalistic renewal were further dampened in 2020 when Zimbabwe positioned itself between Nigeria and Uganda on the podium of Africa’s most repressive countries with regard to the coverage of the coronavirus crisis.”\
It gave the example of freelance journalist Hopewell Chin’ono who was arrested after exposing corruption senior government officials in the procurement of Covid-19 equipment.
RSF said Chin’ono’s arrest and detention was a glaring symbol of the government’s failure to move away from Mugabe’s predatory behaviour towards press freedom.
It further said the security apparatus has not yet lost the habit of harassing journalists and acts of intimidation, verbal attacks, and confiscation of equipment are all still standard practice.
“Extremely harsh media laws are still in effect, and when new laws have been adopted, their provisions are just as draconian as those they replaced,” RSF said.
“Journalists are worried about a cyber-crime bill that is being drafted because it would allow the security apparatus to legally spy on private conversations. The army chief’s reference to social media as a “threat to national security” has reinforced their fears.”
A year ago, the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) Commander Edzai Chimonyo, said the military would soon start snooping into private communications between private citizens to “guard against subversion”.
While RSF noted that new broadcasting licenses had been awarded, it noted that there was a lack of diversity in the granting of the permits. The report also noted that the new TV license holders were linked to military officers and the ruling party.
Zimbabwe’s lowest global media ranking was 135 out of 180 countries in 2014 while the best was 124 in 2016.
Namibia is the best-ranked country in Africa, ranking 24 while Eswatini (Swaziland) and the Democratic Republic of Congo ranked 141 and 149, respectively.