By Tichaona Zindoga
There is a picture of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono that was taken last week, as he was being led off to prison, after being denied bail again.
That picture! Chin’ono is facing up to the photographer, and his face is flushed, eyes sad and poignant. His forehead is contorted with pain, displaying many unwritten words.
Chin’ono is a brave man. His courage made him confront the Government of President Mnangagwa over corruption, most pointedly involving the First Family. His approach was a mixture of journalism and political activism. That is not new. Some of us even silently disagreed with him over the blurring of journalism with overt, subjective activism.
But journalists are free to use their pens to abet certain causes or to denounce and destroy certain systems (sometimes individuals). That is how freedom of expression and freedom of the media works. It is not a crime.
Where someone is wronged by work of journalists, there are ways to seek redress, including the courts – based on principles of establishing uncovering and protecting truth and reputation, but never about punishing and muzzling freedom of the media.
Let’s say that is what should happen in more civilised, open, transparent and free, democratic societies. Within this matrix, governments must have high tolerance levels to the work of journalists and politicians must allow themselves to be scrutinised and sometimes be annoyed by journalists. At the end of the day, integrity is what is achieved for both the political class and government, when the public knows that they are subject to the ever-present poring eye of the media, and by extension the public.
This is my brief synthesis of a whole field of media law and ethics. A key take away from the study and praxis of these concepts is the universal agreement that journalists, even the peskiest, should be allowed to do their work free from fear and harassment as their work is necessary for democracy. That is why they are referred to as the Fourth Estate, the other important pillar of State after Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.
But all that is normative. Think of Hopewell Chin’ono, again. That look. The rulers in Zimbabwe are punishing him. They want to break him down. They want to send a message to others of Chin’ono’s kind that, “This could be you!”
Besides, we have a whole history of tormenting journalists: the State under settler rule of Ian Smith was used to criminalise the work of journalists, and the black rulers that took over from Smith did not anything to change the status quo but instrumentalised and weaponised laws and statutes against free expression and media. We will not go into details about that.
It is scary that the “New Dispensation” of President Mnangagwa is punishing journalists, a whole 40 years after Independence from Smith.
No one buys the story about inciting public violence or seeking to overthrow the Government – themselves contested concepts.
The new reality that opponents of the Government are being incarcerated and punished is a dark pall cast over the profession. Anyone could be Hopewell: no doubt, many of those critical of the Government could be thinking twice about doing their work. They could be increasingly looking over their shoulders when walking. Looking warily in their rear view mirrors while driving in case someone is failing them. Making sure doors and windows are secured as their families go to sleep.
It is a tough time to be a journalist in Zimbabwe – if it is what it should be, in Marxian terms, a tireless denouncer of those in authority.
Obviously, our Government likes the pliant, lickspittle, public relations kind, wherein journalists are ruled by fear or are actually complicit in the oppression of the populace. Right now, there are colleague journalists who peddle Government propaganda conspiracies about the likes of Chin’ono and others receiving foreign funding to aid “regime change” to justify the persecution that the journalist is facing. This is myopic, to the extent that ruling elites will always find excuses and justification to remove threats and ensure their self-preservation.
As an industry, and as an ideology, journalism is worth defending. Today it is Chin’ono. Tomorrow it is someone else, or a whole tribe of journalists.
This brings me to the final, and most important precept of this discourse: safety and security of journalists.
Safety and security of journalists is recognised by the United Nations, which has come up with a whole framework to promote the safety of journalists and combatting impunity for those who attack them.
According to the UN, “Attacks on media professionals are often perpetrated in non-conflict situations by organised crime groups, militia, security personnel, and even local police, making local journalists among the most vulnerable. These attacks include murder, abductions, harassment, intimidation, illegal arrest, and arbitrary detention.”
Zimbabwean journalists are in danger of all of the above. This is a serious matter.
Journalists’ safety and security is also immanently linked to human security, comprising of United Nations declared human rights based efforts to promote peace, security, and sustainable development.
The UN has gone on to craft a framework called UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, in which it acts around six thematic areas namely, standard-setting and policy making; awareness-raising; monitoring and reporting; capacity building; academic research; and coalition building.
The Government of Zimbabwe should not be piqued by the amount of support and concern over Chin’ono. The authorities must read. What they are doing to journalists is the stuff of rogues.
It is a terrible time for us.
*Zindoga is a journalist, writer and founder of Review & Mail