After a brief ceasefire ushered by former Media, Information and Broadcasting Services minister Jonathan Moyo following his return to the ministry in 2013, the Zanu PF strategist’s successor Chris Mushohwe wasted no time after his appointment late last year to declare government’s intention to force critical media to toe the line.
BY OBEY MANAYITI
Mushohwe in December warned journalists against tampering “with sacred forests of security sector.”
In a chilling warning, the minister said: “If you enter a river infested with crocodiles what do you think will happen to you?”
Mushohwe has also expressed discomfort over the private media’s scrutiny of President Robert Mugabe and his family.
However, it is the reference to a river infested with crocodiles that signalled the government’s readiness to return to the trenches in its war against any critical media.
Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba has repeatedly amplified the war cry.
The arrest of NewsDay deputy editor Nqaba Matshazi, reporter Xolisani Ncube and Alpha Media Holdings legal secretary Sifikile Thabethe demonstrated that old habits die hard for Mugabe’s government, analysts said last week.
The trio was arrested and charged for allegedly publishing falsehoods following the publication of a story alleging that Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) operatives had been paid bonuses secretly.
There has been no official rebuttal of the story even as police resorted to using Section 31 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act that was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court last year against the journalists.
Analysts said the arrest, which came in the wake of threats by senior government officials, were not helpful to the country’s image and were meant to suppress free flow of information.
A day after the arrest of journalists, Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba threatened to intensify an onslaught on privately-owned media, warning private media against covering the security sector.
And yesterday a Herald columnist Nathaniel Manheru, believed to be Charamba repeated the threat and again accused privately-owned media, particularly NewsDay of trying to create chaos in the country.
Media organisations said such threats were unwarranted and retrogressive.
Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe chapter chairperson Kumbirai Mafunda said journalists were constitutionally protected and did not deserve such attacks.
“As Misa Zimbabwe we have been observing an assault of media practitioners and media freedom since last year,” he said.
“This is a clearly calculated assault to silence journalists and curtail their access to information so that citizens cannot make informed decisions about their day to day lives.
“We are noting and taking these threats, harassment and intimidation of the media professionals with the seriousness it deserves.
“We can tell you that the constituency of journalists will not be silenced because what they are exercising and doing is constitutionally guaranteed.
“For easy of reference, we are refereeing those authorities to peruse section 61 and 62 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.”
He accused authorities of trying to hide their misdeeds through harassing journalists.
“This just shows we have a regime bent on harassing journalists and they are trying to cover up for their shortcomings of which journalists are not the authors of these shortcomings.
“The strong arm tactics being displayed betrays a regime that is panicking for reasons we don’t know,” Mafunda added.
Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe director Loughty Dube said the media should take a united stand and fight against repression.
He said what was happening now was a direct opposite of what Moyo was trying to do by setting up a conciliatory and reformatory tone on the media.
“This calls for the media to take a united stand against those in power who do not want their shenanigans to be exposed.
“What is happening now is a setback to what Jonathan Moyo had started on a conciliatory and reformatory minded tone on the media,” Dube said.
“We are seeing a worsening situation which is quite unfortunate. It will also reflect badly on the government.
“Journalists should just be careful and prepare for the worst as we prepare for the elections.”
Dube added that Charamba and other government officials should engage the media rather than try to silence them.
He said arrests and intimidation were not the best way to cultivate a sound media in the country. Dube’s sentiments were echoed by Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum (Zinef) acting chairperson Njabulo Ncube who said the arrests were part of an effort to silence the media.
“We view this harassment as part of a sustained campaign by the State to stifle freedom of expression, media freedom and other freedoms enshrined in the Constitution,” he said.
“The arrests are an attempt to entrench fear and result in self censorship which is bad even in a pseudo democracy such as ours.
“But as Zinef we are looking forward to the suggested national media indaba to register our concerns.”
Media analyst Takura Zhangazha described media intimidation as undemocratic.
“Judging from the statements made by the permanent secretary in the Information ministry, the media is definitely under threat of censorship, arbitrary arrests and possible closure of some newspapers,” Zhangazha said.
“From an atmosphere of conviviality to one that is evidently hostile, government appears keen on controlling media content at all costs.
“Its insistence of protecting the military from public and media scrutiny is patently undemocratic and is more akin to instructing the media as to what to report, a situation and circumstance that is unreasonable and unacceptable.”
Media lawyer David Tandiri said what Charamba was doing was wrong and the net effect of that would be felt on citizens who would not be well-informed as journalists fear writing certain stories.
“He must allow journalists to do their work without fear because at the end citizens will suffer from lack of information,” Tandire said.
“The authorities are talking like the law themselves without interpreting what the constitution actually says.”
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition spokesperson, Dumisani Nkomo said freedom of the media was enshrined in sections 61 and 62 of the Constitution which protected sources of journalists’ information
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) said it was worrying that the latest round of arrests came less than a month after Mushohwe warned journalists against reporting on security matters.
“Similar threats and attacks against journalists have also been issued by President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace,” said PDP in a statement.
“PDP urges all journalists in Zimbabwe not to be intimidated by the threats made by the Zanu PF regime and to continue doing their professional work without fear or favour.
“The government must at all times be made accountable for its actions and the media must feel emboldened in that the regime is now panicking despite its threats and attacks.”
Last year police arrested Sunday Mail editor Mabasa Sasa, investigations editor Brian Chitemba and reporter Tinashe Farawo for allegedly publishing falsehoods.
Charamba was very critical of the arrest but following the latest case of NewsDay journalists he appeared to be condoning police’s heavy handed tactics.