One year ago, in March 2020, Kudzanai Musengi, a senior journalist, was covering the impact of a freshly imposed COVID-19 lockdown in the central business district in Gweru, Zimbabwe, when he was suddenly arrested. Police claimed that Musengi had been working without valid accreditation.
Musengi’s arrest was a harbinger of Zimbabwe’s coming efforts to silence critical reporting during the pandemic, which have included a number of arbitrary detentions. According to the International Press Institute’s (IPI) COVID-19 tracker, Zimbabwe tops the list of African countries with the most pandemic-related press freedom violations.
Prominent investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono has been arrested three times during the past eight months. In January this year he spent almost three weeks in jail after being accused of sharing false information on Twitter about alleged police violence during the enforcement of lockdown measures. Chin’ono was released on bail on January 27.
He was arrested in July for the first time after publishing an article revealing COVID-19 procurement fraud within the Health Ministry. On that occasion, he spent six weeks in prison before being granted bail in September.
“There is a climate of fear in the Zimbabwean media industry caused by the frequent arrests of prominent journalists such as Hopewell Chin’ono. While certain repressive legal instruments have been repealed in the last three years, senior government officials continue to use threats of arrests and unspecified actions against journalists to curtal press freedom”, Kholwani Nyathi, the editor of the weekly newspaper The Standard, told IPI, adding that the arrests have already engendered self-censorship in the media industry.
At least two employees of The Standard have been detained for allegedly defying lockdown regulations. “This affects the morale of reporters and the quality of their journalism”, Nyathi said.
High Court ruling didn’t stop harassment
In addition to arrests, many reporters have been harassed, intimidated and attacked due to their job. According to the recent media report published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), in Zimbabwe COVID-19 has led to an upsurge of police and military violence against media workers.
In April last year the Zimbabwean High Court ordered the police to stop harassment, arrests and detentions of journalists working during the lockdown to carry out their lawful duties. Particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, journalists faced challenges because of outdated press accreditation cards as they had not received the new ones yet. Officials were therefore asked to let reporters work with their 2019 cards.
After the ruling, the arrests of journalists slowed, but soon other kinds of harassment came into the picture, Tabani Moyo, the executive director of MISA Zimbabwe, told IPI.
“You journalists think you are special in this country”, soldiers reportedly remarked in June before assaulting freelance journalists Munashe Chokdoza and Leopold Munhende, who were on their way from work. Both of them suffered injuries after the attack, which took place at a local shopping centre in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.
“The number of incidents is too high to be about the confusion of authorities. There is a strategy”, Moyo said.
Media workers have also experienced the government as an uncooperative partner when it comes to access to information. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, it was unclear for many reporters what kind of disease they were actually reporting about as officials were not willing to answer follow up questions in press briefings, Moyo said.
In February of this year, freelance journalists Godfrey Mtimba and Tonderai Sharo were reportedly barred from covering the rollout of the vaccination program near the town of Masvingo. “The government regularly updates the media on its COVID-19 response, but there are lingering fears that authorities hide critical information especially around contracts for vaccines and personal protective equipment”, Nyathi said.
In total MISA Zimbabwe reported violations against 52 media workers, including journalists, vendors and media students in 2020. The amount is more than two times higher than in 2019. In most of the cases related to COVID-19, reporters were arrested or charged with allegedly violating virus-related restrictions, IPI’s tracker shows.
The trend can be seen also in the recent report from Human Rights Watch, according to which Zimbabwe has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to using COVID-19 as an excuse to crack down on journalists. “I have had subtle threats directed at me on social media by some government officials and anonymous accounts that support the government each time we have published stories that make the authorities uncomfortable”, Nyathi told IPI.
At the end of July armed police and state security agents raided the home of investigative journalist Mduduzi Mathuhu on suspicion of “organizing and advocating illegal demonstrations against the government of Zimbabwe”. Because Mathuhu wasn’t home during the roundup, police arrested one of his family members.
Constant safety concerns
MISA has been monitoring the challenges facing the media for the past year, and Moyo thinks that so far the support media workers have received during the pandemic has not been enough. Journalists have not been given sufficient protective equipment against the virus, not to mention financial assistance or mental health help.
Moyo is therefore worried in particular about the psychological impact of COVID-19 on journalists. “These have been the most stressful periods for journalists, and have increased levels of anxiety. People are not knowing what will happen tomorrow.”
In Zimbabwe many journalists have already died because of the virus, Moyo said. For him it is a clear sign of the fact that journalists are constantly putting themselves in danger while reporting.
Concerns have also risen over the conditions of Zimbabwe’s often overcrowded prisons. Hopewell Chin’ono, for example, was held in the Chikurubi high-security prison in the outskirts of Harare, where conditions have been described as inhumane.
Rapid digital change
The pandemic has also created a financial crisis in the media industry. The biggest challenge has been the lack of advertisement, Nyathi thinks. Many outlets have already been forced to cut down their costs and lay off employees.
The pandemic has also affected the distribution of print media. As part of measures to curb the virus – whether effective or not – distribution via news agents was put on hold, so newspapers and magazines had to focus less on printing. For many outlets it meant a compelled transition to digital platforms.
The Standard, for example, has been distributing the paper in PDF format to paid subscribers via email. Nyathi said that it has helped attract new subscribers, who previously didn’t have the access to the physical paper.
But the reduction in print obviously creates problems as well. “Some of the challenges we faced included the fact that for several weeks we could not sell the newspaper on the streets and this affected the bottom line”, Nyathi said.
According to the World Bank, in 2019 less than 30 percent of Zimbabweans had access to the internet, which means the existence of print products is still very crucial for news organizations. Moyo thinks that for some newspapers the rapid change will already be too much for some media. “The new ecosystem is a serious challenge. Some news organizations might collapse, and it’s our biggest fear”, he said.
Moyo thinks that in the long run the financial crisis will have a strong impact on the quality of journalism. He says that already multiple media organizations are leaning more and more on young journalism students or interns who haven’t received enough education on media ethics or on other important issues. This has decreased citizens’ trust in media, Moyo said, which was already low before COVID-19.
New broadcasting licenses don’t guarantee pluralism
Zimbabwe’s media have faced other challenges, too. On the surface, a positive change occurred when the local broadcasting authority, BAZ, announced the country’s first-ever licenses for several commercial television stations. For 40 years the airwaves had been monopolized by the state broadcaster ZBC.
Even though the licenses in theory bring new opportunities to media in Zimbabwe, experts have expressed their concerns over a lack of pluralism in the license allocation. According to MISA, all the new license holders already have a print or broadcasting license or are linked to the government or ruling party.
“If Zimbabwe is to have a truly diverse media, there is a need for more players from different backgrounds to be granted licenses. With this (current) scenario, the country risks having a homogeneity of news and views, which is anathema to democracy”, MISA Zimbabwe stated in its report. Nyathi shares MISA’s concern. He is afraid that the broadcasting sector will remain closed to all independent media.
Hard work defending press freedom must go on even after the pandemic
In March 2021 the pandemic has showed some signs of easing in Zimbabwe as the daily number of new cases has been decreasing. All in all around 40,000 COVID-19 infections have been reported. Over the last couple of weeks the daily toll of reported new cases has been around 30.
Moyo is evidently relieved about the positive change and said that a parallel development could be seen in the behaviour of the authorities as well. At the end of January, the High Court ordered the ministers of health and information to “widely disseminate comprehensive and adequate information” on testing, isolation and treatment of the disease. The ruling followed MISA’s urgent application to the court in which it claimed that the information had so far been incomplete.
At the same time Moyo knows that the work defending free press and the freedom of expression in Zimbabwe will continue. As an example he mentioned that all elections and electoral activity, such as demonstrations, have been suspended during the pandemic. In addition, the government has proposed new laws, such as cybersecurity bill, which was proposed in March 2020, and is considered to open the door to strong surveillance of the public and diminish rights to freedom of expression and privacy of personal data.
Moyo says that those types of laws also pose a significant challenge on democracy in Zimbabwe. “Post pandemic won’t be business as usual.”