WASHINGTON – When a military coup ended President Robert Mugabe’s 30-year term in 2017, Zimbabweans at first were hopeful.
For some, it was the only transfer of power they’d ever witnessed. For others, it provided relief from Mugabe’s three decades of autocracy — a period marked by a struggling economy, massive corruption and the stifling of dissent.
When Emmerson Mnangagwa — Mugabe’s vice president and longtime ally — took over as president, he pledged to tackle the country’s endemic problems and said free expression would be “indispensable” in the “new Zimbabwe.”
Many journalists felt optimistic. Including freelancer Hopewell Chin’ono.
But Mnangagwa’s leadership has turned out to be not much of a departure from the Mugabe era. And Chin’ono has gone from voicing support for the new president’s plans — to being his prisoner.
The government has been trying to silence reporters like Chin’ono, who report on high-level corruption: imprisoning them, imposing social media restrictions including a proposed cybercrime bill, and dispelling dissent, journalists and activists say.
It’s part of a larger trend globally that gained traction in Africa, where leaders have called for “proactive” responses to tackle false news and what they see as an abuse of social media.
“There was so much pain [in Zimbabwe] for so long that people really did want to believe there could be change,” said Janet Heard, a South African journalist who was a fellow alongside Chin’ono at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. “It was a real wake-up call when Hopewell was arrested. I got a hell of a shock.”
On Oct. 26, Chin’ono tweeted about the arrest of Zimbabwe politician Henrietta Rushwaya, who was accused of trying to smuggle gold out of the country.
Chin’ono’s tweet cited sources from the National Prosecution Authority as saying that prosecutors were not opposed to giving bail to Rushwaya. The tweet turned out to be true — prosecutors initially supported giving bail to Rushwaya.
A week later, authorities arrested Chin’ono on accusations that he obstructed justice by tweeting and had violated the bail terms of a previous arrest. On Tuesday, a court is due to hear his appeal for bail.
“He’s in pretrial detention on a charge that frankly is ludicrous,” Angela Quintal, the Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told VOA. “They’re doing that, one, to break his spirit, and two, to send a signal to others, that ‘if you’re going to do what Hopewell Chin’ono does, you’ll be next.’”
The arrest is the second for Chin’ono this year. He spent over 40 days in detention for incitement to participate in violence after he tweeted support for anti-government demonstrations. In that case, he received bail on the fourth attempt.
During that time, Zimbabwe’s secretary for information, Nick Mangwana tweeted that “no profession is above the law.”
Zimbabwe’s Embassy in Washington, D.C., told VOA the spokesperson who handles political comments is unavailable until Monday. When VOA called on Monday, the embassy said the spokesperson was not available. The embassy did not respond to an email.
The country’s information minister, Monica Mutsvangwa, told VOA last week she would not comment on Chin’ono’s case or press freedom issues because the Cabinet had not discussed it.
Despite being in jail, Chin’ono is in high spirits, his lead attorney, Beatrice Mtetwa, told VOA. Unlike the first time he was arrested, the journalist is unwilling to make any concessions: If he receives bail, he needs assurance that he can continue tweeting without punishment, Mtetwa said.
“He’s in a better frame of mind this time around than he was the first time,” Mtetwa said. “This is a fight worth pursuing because freedom of expression is a necessary part of any democratic state.”
Crackdown on social media
The legal action against Chin’ono over a tweet represents what some see as the latest effort to control social media in Zimbabwe.
Social media platforms are a haven for the country’s journalists — it’s almost the only media platform that isn’t state-controlled, said Fungai Tichawangana, a former arts and culture journalist from Zimbabwe. The state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has a monopoly over television and radio stations.
As a result, journalists turn to social media — and so do the authorities.
“We’ve seen increasingly that journalists do get targeted, social activists do get targeted, political activists do get targeted,” Mtetwa, Chin’ono’s lawyer, told VOA. “Basically, anyone who is not within the ruling elites, who tweets, get targeted.”
But the punishments are laden with hypocrisy, said Tichawangana, a 2016 Nieman fellow at Harvard University, who lives in Massachusetts. Ruling elites also use social media to share opinions, but they are never punished, Tichawangana said.
The government is also attempting to expedite a cybercrime bill that would punish those who spread falsehoods on social media with up to five years in prison. Minister of Justice Ziyambi Ziyambi says the bill will help “deal with” those who intentionally spread falsehoods on digital platforms.
Heard, who is a managing editor of the South African news website The Daily Maverick, said governments use the excuse of tackling disinformation as a guise to stifle dissent.
After Mnangagwa won a close presidential election in Zimbabwe in 2018, protests broke out in the capital, Harare. The military, whom some had seen as heroes who overthrew Mugabe, opened fire. The act stunned people across the country.
The following year, when the government announced increased fuel prices, more protests broke out. Authorities shut down Facebook, WhatsApp and the internet — efforts that limited communications about the protests.
Not just in Zimbabwe
In August, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), an inter-governmental organization with leaders from 16 countries, held its annual summit of heads of state and government.
The leaders urged each other “to take pro-active measures to mitigate external interference, the impact of fake news and the abuse of social media, especially in electoral processes,” according to a communique from the summit.
Last year, the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (CISSA) said “despite the many benefits of social media, it is increasingly being exploited by some subversive elements and negative forces to destabilize African countries.”
These measures, among others, signify the shift across several African countries to limit social media freedoms, Quintal, from CPJ, said.
“They use the fact that the so-called fake news propagated on social media as a reason why they would want to crack down,” Quintal said. “But we all know, frankly, and it’s quite clear that this really is an attempt to crack down on dissent.”
Others said the moves will limit the space for independent reporting.
“There’s a dearth of alternative voices,” Tichawangana told VOA. “And social media makes it possible to have other opinions expressed.”
Proposed curbs on social media come as press freedom deteriorates among several African countries, Heard said, including Tanzania, Mozambique and Eritrea.
Heard acknowledged it is hard to generalize the situation to the entire continent. Namibia, South Africa and Botswana are among the most free globally for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Yet it’s clear the crackdown is intensifying, journalists and advocates said — something they believe will likely continue as more restrictive legislation is discussed.