By JOHN CHIMUNHU
Now Daily Analysis
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The High Court case against Now Daily and I should be viewed in the context of ongoing severe media repression in Zimbabwe.
Defamation or insult laws are tools that state officials in Zimbabwe use frequently to silence the probing media. University of Zimbabwe law professor, Geoff Feltoe wrote: “Investigative reporting can be a very hazardous business under the present Zimbabwean law.”
Journalists facing such charges are often put under a wave of intrusive surveillance and intimidation. In my case, this has meant regular visits from Senator Lilian Timveos Mpofu’s henchmen and women, threatening me with death, deprivation and prison. Sometimes, the messengers urge me to ‘talk’ to the senator. However, from experience as an editor dealing with corrupt officials like herself, I know that such meetings are usually turned into a stage for violent attacks against the journalist or are used to tag him/her so that they can be followed and attacked. Such meetings are often characterized by offers of bribes, which always degenerate into false charges of blackmail against the journalist. The best is to talk in public, in court.
Truly independent broadcasting and publishing are banned in Zimbabwe, except for those with strong ties to the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe. People rely on a growing number of foreign-based radio and TV stations, websites and online publications run by Zimbabweans and others for news about what is going on in the country. This is a very volatile time for the media. Arbitrary arrests are common. So are violent attacks on journalists by both Mugabe’s governing Zanu PF party and the main opposition MDC-T led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Journalists cannot go about their work without being harassed, monitored, disrupted or maligned.
Zimbabwe is a brutal dictatorship. President Mugabe has been described by the United States-based Foreign Policy think tank as the second most brutal dictator in the world after the late Kim Jong Il of North Korea. Former US president George W. Bush described Zimbabwe under Mugabe as an “outpost of tyranny”. Political murder and repression are entrenched in the state system. Corruption, seizure of businesses and properties by the ruling oligarchs is a daily business, but without a free media, all these heinous crimes are often swept under the carpet. This is the context in which we operate.
Journalists are watched constantly by the regime’s extensive and brutal security apparatus. They keep tabs on me for the time when I say or do something ‘wrong’. The surveillance is intrusive and sometimes overt. They use my news sources, opposition officials, diplomats, business associates and even family members to gather information on me and interfere with my legitimate media work and generally to hurt me. A lot of my colleagues are dead, exiled or out of practice. I have only survived by taking extreme precautions and constant training by experts.
Blogging, online video and rapid text messaging platforms such as WhatsApp are technologies that have become widely used in Zimbabwe. Media censorship has been official government policy since ex-guerilla leader Mugabe came to power at independence from Britain in 1980. The government centralized broadcasting in official hands. Efforts to liberalize and democratize the Zimbabwean media in the 1990s, under pressure from IMF and the World Bank, were quickly abandoned when the independent media started exposing the regime’s corruption.
With the arrival of the internet and easy availability of text, audio and video distribution channels that are almost free, government’s hold on the media came to be challenged. For $50 – the cost of a smartphone – practically everyone can blog. Services such as Facebook Live have made digital defiance not only possible but safe and affordable to many activists. Many of the images of repression and resistance published and broadcast are amateurish, done by ordinary citizens using cheap phones, but clear enough to shock audiences into open revulsion.
When I set out to publish Now Daily in 2012, I had every intention to assert my United Nations-guaranteed rights to freedom of expression and freedom to transmit and receive information, rights that I had been denied since I was born. Blogging and website hosting opened a new avenue for oppressed journalists like myself to expose dishonesty, corruption and the gross human rights violations that Zimbabweans experience every day. I founded Now Daily with the hope of helping audiences to assert their rights as well. The absence of credible, unfettered data from all angles has been a great impediment to the struggle for democracy and a better life for all Zimbabweans. People’s choices are limited by the quality of information they have. In a situation where there are tensions and regular open warfare, it is usually only the well-informed who survive.
With regard to the outrageous $2.5 million lawsuit from the MDC-T senator who was sensationally caught selling Parliament fuel coupons on the black market, we were entirely justified to publish that story. Our duty is to inform the public. As Professor Feltoe said, “access to information is of pivotal importance to the proper working of a participatory democracy”. We took reasonable steps to verify the extent of this corruption and the evidence is there. I saw it with my own eyes!
Honesty for a public officer is of critical importance, particularly an elected one. It is wholly justified and in the public interest for people to know that their elected representatives are abusing public office for private profit. Anywhere else in the world, a scandal of this magnitude would force MPs to resign. Not in graft-ridden Zimbabwe, where corrupt officials add insult to injury to the public trust by dragging us to the courts on frivolous charges, using dubious processes.
I am the founder and administrator of the African Media Bloggers Association, a platform for mostly Zimbabwean bloggers to market their work and deal with their issues. To date, more than 2 000 bloggers have joined this forum. Hundreds of active new blogs have been established in the past year, much to the annoyance of state authorities and corrupt opposition leaders.
In December 2014, the ruling party Zanu PF, led by the dictator Robert Mugabe resolved to ban the use of the internet by Zimbabweans to prevent them accessing accurate information about what was going on in the country. The deepening political and economic crisis in the country has made people desperate for life-saving information about safety, health and other crucial issues. But internet shops are ordered to slow down users. This was partially achieved by ordering mobile communications companies to slow down internet speeds, according to a recent report by Freedom House. The same report condemns the opposition MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai for declaring a ban on party members expressing themselves on the internet. All these measures by politicians have failed to stem the tide of Zimbabweans asserting their rights by engaging on social media and other online platforms. The government has announced that it will ‘regulate’ online media, which can only mean censorship. The opposition party has gone further by launching lawsuits against journalists and mounting violent attacks to prevent them recording and reporting evidence of corruption and abuse of office.
Having failed to stop people from accessing digital media, the authorities and corrupt opposition politicians have now taken to attacking journalists and digital media content providers such as myself.
The government and corrupt opposition politicians are out to crush me personally and I know why. I am the agitator who has mobilized thousands of Zimbabweans to take their freedom to communicate by setting up independent websites to express their views. Thousands of people are now members of AMBA, representing hundreds of new blogs. This has rattled the authorities. First, they tried to coopt us by making us part of a discredited journalists’ trade union whose leader regularly sings Mugabe’s praises. When that failed, they went on the attack, targeting individual bloggers like myself. They have used smear campaigns online and off in an attempt to take away my audience. They have threatened members of my family and media associates with death and other punishments if they continue supporting me. I have suffered other attacks, including being poisoned, followed and monitored. Having failed to stop my work, they have turned to another trusted tool: judicial harassment accompanied by potent threats of imprisonment and heavy financial penalties if I do not toe the line.
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