ZIMBABWEAN documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono’s 46 days behind bars put the international spotlight solidly on the decline of human rights in Zimbabwe — on President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s watch.
“Our role as journalists is to bring power to account; they have barred me from Twitter, but they have not barred me from Facebook. I will continue to write on Facebook and local media.”
Unbowed, these were the words of award-winning Zimbabwean freelance investigative journalist and filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono as he walked out of Zimbabwe’s maximum-security prison last week.
Chin’ono’s words were informed by a bail ruling of the country’s high court that barred him from using his Twitter account until the incitement case that he is facing has been finalised in the courts.
His bail conditions compelled him to post bail money, surrender his passport, title deeds of his house and not to use his Twitter account.
The restrictions and ongoing case against Chin’ono were criticised by various media groupings including the Zimbabwe Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and regional editors’ forums.
The arrest of Chin’ono and his subsequent incarceration for 46 days without bail, coinciding with the arrest of other human rights defenders and political activists, put President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government under international scrutiny over alleged human rights violations.
When Mnangagwa came to power in 2017 following his predecessor Robert Mugabe’s resignation at the behest of the military that had intervened in Zimbabwe’s national politics, Chin’ono was among those who posted on their social media platforms that Mnangagwa should be given a chance to put systems in order in the southern African country. Mnangagwa had promised to implement a raft of key democratic reforms, including media reforms, but quickly mirrored Mugabe.
After his release, Chin’ono said: “My experience in prison showed that many prisoners are suffering; there is no food or adequate blankets and the cells are overcrowded. My detention confirmed what we have always written about as journalists, that there is massive corruption in the country and inmates would not be surviving like that if national resources were being put to good use.”
To many Zimbabweans such as Tatenda Sigauke, who follow Chin’ono on social media, he has become their voice on corruption issues.
“He is my hero because he is doing what many of us have failed to do (talk about corruption) because we are afraid of being victimised by our government. His Facebook and Twitter postings have become an eye-opener to some of us who do not understand the way this country is being run by Mnangagwa; such activism is important if we are to have a corruption-free society,” said Sigauke.
The 49-year-old Chin’ono, who studied mass communications in Harare, did his attachment at the now-defunct Horizon magazine and also had a short stint at the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper before exploring the international space where he covered several stories for various media houses.
He was the ITV News Africa field producer and The New York Times’ Zimbabwe foreign correspondent. Chin’ono studied journalism in Harare before getting his first postgraduate Master of Arts degree in International Journalism from City University’s Journalism school in London. He later worked with the BBC World Service as a freelance radio producer.
In 2003, Chin’ono returned to Zimbabwe where he worked for the BBC as a freelance correspondent. He won a Chevening Scholarship sponsored by the British government in 2006 to read film at Brunel University, where he obtained a Master of Arts degree in Documentary Practice in 2007. That year, Chin’ono returned to Zimbabwe and produced a documentary film called Pain in My Heart which focused on HIV/Aids.
His documentary won the 2008 CNN African Journalist of the Year award, the 2008 Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Award and the Kaiser Family Foundation Award for Excellence in HIV/AIDS Reporting in Africa.
Chin’ono later established Television International in Zimbabwe, a production house that produced news for ITV and South Africa’s e.tv (now eNCA). On some special assignments, he worked with CNN International as a field producer.
Chin’ono is a 2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, the third and last Zimbabwean journalist to have won this prestigious fellowship.
In 2009 he won the US Aid Communication award in Zimbabwe for his HIV and Aids Reporting. The following year, he was nominated for a Rory Peck Trust television award for his documentary film A Violent Response. The film, whose production was informed by violent elections that resulted in Mugabe forming a government with the late Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change in 2009, was also nominated for a 2010 BANFF World Television Award in Canada and was broadcast by the BBC.
Chin’ono also co-produced the documentary film Beatrice Mtetwa and The Rule of Law with Massachusetts-based Lorie Conway of Boston Videos. The film has a Facebook page under its title and got Chin’ono in trouble when the prosecution successfully applied for his lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who was the main subject of the film, to be barred from being his lead lawyer.
Before he was arrested on 20 July 2020, Chin’ono had just completed making State of Mind, a film that looks at Zimbabwe’s mental-illness epidemic. Chin’ono had used social media to expose a Covid-19 medical supplies scandal involving health minister Obadiah Moyo that resulted in the cabinet minister being fired.
Emerging from jail, Chin’ono appeared unfazed. “Our role as journalists is to inform the people around us and I will continue to do my work; exposing those who are corrupt”.