Shooting the messengers
By Simeon Mawanza, Amnesty International’s Regional Specialist for Southern Africa
On Wednesday three journalists were led into a Harare courtroom, shackled like common criminals. Their ‘crime’? Daring to do their job in a way that the Zimbabwean police did not like. The journalists had alleged that a number of police, including a senior officer, were involved in the gruesome killing of elephants in Hwange National Park. Police allege that the article tarnished the image of Zimbabwe. I beg to differ.
The journalists had alleged that a number of police, including a senior officer, were involved in the gruesome killing of elephants
There is no excuse for bad journalism. However, even if the story published in The Sunday Mail turns out to be a total fabrication, the police action against the journalists remains wholly unacceptable.
By arresting the journalists and detaining them for two days, the police were not acting within the law. Instead, their actions were vengeful and contemptuous of Zimbabwe’s constitution which protects the right to freedom of expression. Whoever gave the order for their arrest has once again brought Zimbabwe back into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
The story published last Sunday alleged that some police, including an assistant commissioner, were part of a syndicate responsible for the killing of elephants using cyanide in Hwange. The newspaper did not name the policemen for obvious legal reasons.
even if the story published in The Sunday Mail turns out to be a total fabrication, the police action against the journalists remains wholly unacceptable
According to numerous sources, police arrived at the newspaper’s offices on Monday demanding that the journalists disclose the source of their information. The journalists refused. Had they complied they might have endangered their source, who could have faced the full wrath of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP). Naming their source would have also breached their professional ethics, which place a duty on journalists not to disclose confidential sources.
In court, the editor of the newspaper Mabasa Sasa, investigations editor Brian Chitemba and journalist Tinashe Farawo were charged with “publishing falsehoods”. Dozens of journalists in Zimbabwe, mainly from the private media, have been arrested and charged with “publishing falsehoods” in recent years. They were all subsequently acquitted. Indeed, Section 31 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, the section of statute under which they were charged, was ruled unconstitutional under the old constitution and it remains so.
News of the arrest of the journalists spread quickly, causing consternation and attracting approbation from around the world. Private and state-controlled media in Zimbabwe were united in condemning police heavy-handedness.
The case has also had a chilling effect on Zimbabwean media as it may restrict the ability of the media to expose alleged criminal activities by those in authority.
The case has also had a chilling effect on Zimbabwean media as it may restrict the ability of the media to expose alleged criminal activities by those in authority
If the police had felt slandered by the article they could have, through their lawyers, asked the newspaper to retract its story. They could have also offered their account of events, or even threatened to sue the newspaper in the civil courts. In adjudicating libel cases courts should reflect the importance of open debate about matters of public interest and the principle that public figures are required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than private citizens. Police could have complained to the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe or other bodies which ensure ethical journalism.
Sadly, the oppressive reaction of the police comes as no surprise. The ZRP have repeatedly failed to respect the rights of those they believe to have offended those in power. This kind of conduct has made a mockery of the new constitution, adopted in May 2013, which offers protection of a wide range of human rights.
Over the years I have interviewed numerous human rights defenders and political activists in Zimbabwe who had the misfortune of ending up in police cells for daring to exercise their human rights. They were beaten with baton sticks, fists, boots and other implements. They were denied access to lawyers, food and medical care. They were dragged to court in humiliating fashion and endured extended periods in custody after being unfairly denied bail by magistrate courts. Ray Choto, Mark Chavhunduka, Jestina Mukoko, Jenni Williams and Lovemore Madhuku are some of the more prominent names you might recognise, but there are hundreds more who suffered equally.
In the coming weeks we will see The Sunday Mail journalists go on trial. If previous cases are anything to go by, we will see lavish claims made by state prosecutors and police witnesses, with journalists covering the story in Zimbabwe fearing arrest should they report on it in depth. But should such a courtroom farce unfold, few Zimbabweans will be fooled into thinking that this is anything but a travesty of justice.