Media freedom is under threat in Zimbabwe under cover of lockdown regulations to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Eleven media organisations have petitioned President Emmerson Mnangagwa to put an end to the continual harassment of journalists while carrying out their constitutionally protected duty, saying their lives are now in danger.
The petition was also directed to the Minister of Information, SADC chairperson John Magufuli, African Union chairperson, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Lawrence Mute, the Special Rapporteur on Access to Information and Freedom of Expression at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.
In the petition, the media organisations – including journalists, media practitioners, editors, online content creators, freedom of expression advocates and other media stakeholders – call on President Mnangagwa to rein in government officials that disrespect media freedoms and take decisive action against those that threaten journalists and other media practitioners.
They said they were concerned with the increase in cases of arrests, violations and harassment of journalists in Zimbabwe. “…[T]he Zimbabwe Republic Police and the security forces in general should not inhibit the practice of journalism,” reads part of the petition.
The organisations demand that the state drop all charges against journalists and media organisations so as to create an enabling environment for media freedom and the exercise of freedom of expression in the country.
The petition accuses security forces of using violence against journalists in the name of enforcing lockdown regulations. The government, the media organisations say, should work on reviewing all draconian media laws in the country such as the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill and also reconsider regulations enforcing lockdown rules so that they strike a balance between the protection of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and the need to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The organisations also call on the SADC, AU and other regional organisations to use existing mechanisms for peer review and accountability to ensure that Zimbabwe abides by international laws and regional instruments that guarantee freedom of expression.
Media Monitoring Project (MMPZ) projects manager, Nigel Nyamutumbu, says journalism and the media sector in general are under siege and a united front is essential in defending freedom of expression.
Media practitioners need to put their heads together and present an amplified voice until their message is heard and respected. “We have more that unites us and the joining hands in submitting the petition is evidence of our shared concerns and desire to develop the media and information sector in Zimbabwe,” he says.
Several journalists have been harassed or arrested since President Mnangagwa announced regulations to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the country, which include a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono has been languishing in remand prison since July 31 when he was arrested by armed men at his Borrowdale home in Harare in a late night raid. He is being treated inhumanely with several of his rights while in detention such as access to food, clothing and legal counsel being refused.
Media and human rights organisations have accused President Mnangagwa of taking advantage of the covid-19 regulations to trample on human rights and suppress dissent. On July 31, a planned demonstration against rampant corruption by government officials and ministers was foiled after Mnangagwa deployed heavily armed soldiers and special police units on to the streets and residential areas.
Several regional and international organisations have written to the president raising concerns over the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. The International Trade Union Congress (ITUC), in its 2020 Labour Rights Index Report, has ranked Zimbabwe among the top 10 worst countries for violation and infraction of worker and trade union rights.
Efforts to get comment from the Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa, were fruitless. The minister requested questions in writing but had not responded to them by the time of writing.