By Leopold Munhende
VERY few people would have expected the media space to have shrunk to this level after the Robert Mugabe era.
I sure never thought it could get worse, but it has. Samantha Kureya aka ‘Gonyeti’ amongst many other media practitioners will attest to this.
Friday 23 August was probably going to be an ordinary day in my life with the usual routine of writing stories, covering different events.
In fact, my bosses earlier in the day had, had a change of plan withdrawing me from an initial assignment. NewZimbabwe.com Deputy Editor Richard Chidza in conversations with Editor Nkosana Dlamini was clear he wanted me in the office.
We had all noticed an unusual heavy police presence around Government Complex, home to the Ministries of Finance, Justice and many other State departments, within the Harare CBD.
The Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ) had called for a protest at Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube’s offices. Little did I know that that would also mark the beginning of my own journey to the dreaded Police CID Law and Order Division at Harare Central, the country’s biggest police station by both physical size and crime rate recorded.
In the blink of an eye everything was to change. I was to be a guest at the station for the better part of my working day.
As the demonstrators started gathering and breaking into the usual protest songs, anti-riot police officers already on site became aggressive, intent on stopping any slight action considered a demonstration.
As I rushed to record a video of union leader, Obert Masaraure being bundled into a rickety ex-Japanese police truck, the union’s lawyer Douglas Coltart was being harassed, beaten up, kicked and later handcuffed.
It is rare for lawyers to be beaten up by a usually harsh police force but then nothing is surprising in Zimbabwe.
He too was bundled onto the truck alongside seven other protestors.
Just as I thought I had seen the last of the drama, I suddenly felt a firm grab of my trousers belt from behind, followed by an order to join those in the truck. In a bid to save my own skin, I gently drew my Zimbabwe Media Commission accreditation card from my wallet and calmly communicated that I was a journalist just doing my job.
But my short-bodied captor would have none of it. Even when one of his colleagues tried to plead with him on my behalf, he still had the temerity to jab me with the tip of his baton stick, ordering me to jump in.
I was under arrest for committing ‘journalism’!
I did not resist; rule number one.
My mind raced. I dreaded the ordeal suffered by Gonyeti.
About six people had been handcuffed; more were bundled in, bringing the number to about a dozen guarded by eight officers.
I watched Chidza take pictures, one of which is the one appearing on this article.
He had also been harassed and at some point, I thought he would join me. However, some police officer seemed to have recognised him and pleaded on his behalf. He got his accreditation card back but continued remonstrating with police officers as we were driven away.
By 2pm, no charges had been laid against us but there was atleast something to cheer in the form of some hot lunch that was brought to us by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR).
Equally, media rights lobby, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)-Zimbabwe, after being informed of my arrest by concerned colleagues at NewZimbabwe.com, had sent me a lawyer, Chris Mhike. I cherished the moment. More lawyers, Fadzai Mahere, Beatrice Mtetwa and the Drury family were there for company.
No charges had been laid again by 4pm and by 5pm, I overheard police say protestors were going to be charged with public violence but there was no footage to buttress that. More meetings were held to decide on the appropriate charges. We could hear them argue on what charges to prefer.
Eventually, they settled for the not so unfamiliar charge of “public nuisance”. The next decision was that they were going to be taken to court the next morning, being a Saturday. No one was speaking about me yet, compounding my mental torture.
In the meantime, as I later got to learn, Chidza was making frantic efforts to get hold of Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa and her Permanent Secretary Nick Mangwana to no avail.
He instead got through to police national spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi whom he took time to remind about journalism being as lawful a job as was the job of policing itself. Oops, that may have worked the magic!
But that was not all that was needed to save my skin.
Mhike played his part, pleading with them that I was not even supposed to be in a police station for anything, least of all, performing journalism.
I had been placed in a very cold room, one place that may have been handy for dead bodies given the current power outages.
I took heart when I saw Mhike come occasionally to check on me.
I was beginning to make sense of the numerous tales I often heard about Harare Central Law and Order not being the most comfortable places for any.
I gave up hope of an early release and the thought of being ushered into those steel police cell doors was dominating my imagination.
In fact, Mhike, being the assuring hand of the day, told me to prepare myself mentally, also notifying Chidza to get hold of my family and get warm clothes.
The closest Chidza got to my family was my close friend Mlondolozi Ndlovu, who is also chairperson of the Young Journalists Association (YOJA) of which I am a member. Ndlovu promised to make arrangements. But Chidza was not willing to give up soon as he kept pushing some decision makers somewhere for my release.
From what I gather, Nyathi was later to call and advised Chidza I would be released. Chidza in turn made it public that he had official word from police that I would be let go without charge, for obvious reasons, just in case there was a change of heart by the powers that be.
One officer, perhaps noticing I was both agitated and uncomfortable or better still, scared, jokingly said: “If they wanted you dead, you would be dead; we do not do that here.”
After a couple of hours in the ‘Cold Room’, I was told I could go with no charge surprisingly, after almost half the day in detention.
I imagined the dark corridor I had passed on my way in and questioned their sincerity but I had had enough anyway.
As I walked into the ‘Power Room’ (named thus because all who get in it attain political power) I felt rather bad having to bid farewell to my comrades of the day.
Masaraure was sorry I had spent the day in detention, Coltart was happy justice had been partially served. Mhike surprisingly stayed behind: “To help anyone else who might need my assistance.” Good man!
When I switched my mobile phone on at around midnight, 93 messages plus more were waiting for me on all social networking sites and direct into my mobile.
The first call I got was from my mother.
She had just a few words to say: “Siyana nekabasa kako aka, usaita se usingazive zvakaitika kuna Itai Dzamara Leo! (Leave that little job of yours, don’t behave as if you don’t know what happened to Itai Dzamara.”
Dzamara, a dear journalism colleague who had also turned into activism, disappeared without trace in 2015 and has remained the rallying point of Zimbabwe’s renewed search for democracy.
Back to my ordeal.
I later gathered from my little brush with the law that police actually believe it is within their mandate to arrest journalists during protests.
“You should seek clearance first!” gushed one of them.