Zimbabwe cleric and activist Pastor Evan Mawarire (C) speaks to the press as he arrives at the Harare Magistrates Court on January 17, 2019. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

By Dumisani Sigogo

Journalists, writers, and human rights campaigners together with other prominent Africans have strongly condemned the continued crackdown against activists, newsmen, and writers by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration.

The African Editors Forum (TAEF), the Southern Africa Editors Forum (SAEF), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Media Institute of Southern Africa(MISA Zimbabwe) have added their voices to the growing concerns by those calling for an end to the abductions, arrests and harassment of perceived enemies of the state.

Before the planned July 31 mass protests against corruption and rising costs of living, the government enforced a military-style curfew disguised as measures to curb the surging COVID- 19 infections but at the same time aimed at quashing the demos.

On 20 June 2020, police broke into Hopewell Chin’ono’s home in Harare without a warrant and arrested the award-winning investigative journalist, who exposed alleged government corruption in the procurement of COVID-19 supplies. He has been in remand prison after he was denied bail on charges of “inciting public violence.”

In Bulawayo, on the night of 30 June 2020, state security agents raided the home of Mduduzi Mathuthu, the editor of ZimLive, an online publication. Mathuthu, who first broke the COVID-19 supplies scandal was not at home, but this time armed with a search warrant, the police ransacked his home claiming they were looking for “subversive materials” connected to the 31 July protests.

TEAF and SAEF, in a statement signed by their respective chairpersons, Jovial Rantao and Willie Mponda, read: “We wish to remind the Zimbabwe government that journalism is not a crime and therefore demand that all charges against Mduduzi(Mathuthu) and Chin’ono be unconditionally dropped immediately to allow them to continue reporting without fear. We are deeply concerned about the abuse of journalists by Zimbabwean security forces which of late has resulted in a sharp increase of their arrests and unlawful detention, especially since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.”

The editors appealed to the Mnangagwa administration to provide guarantees and to ensure that the scribes work without any hindrances, fear of intimidation, or arrests. They also demanded that the government works together with the media to find a common ground with a view to ending the harassment and jailing of journalists.

“TAEF and SAEF remain committed as well as ready to assist both the Zimbabwean government and media in finding a lasting solution with a view to ending the harassment and arrest of Journalists,” the editors’ statement said.

Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa program coordinator Angela Quintal in a tweet said: “This is the list of things seized by police during a raid on @zimliveeditor @Mathuthus home today. Honestly, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Two masks & 2 pamphlets saying “Zanu-PF must go”, a pellet gun & a laptop. Police must be desperate!”

When they failed to locate Mathuthu who is also the former editor of a government daily, the police, arrested as bait, his nephew Tawanda Muchehiwa together with relatives, Amandlenkosi and Advent Mathuthu.

On 1 August 2020, High Court judge, Justice Makonese ordered the police to investigate the whereabouts of Muchehiwa and produce the outcome of the probe within 72 hours. This court order came after the MISA Zimbabwe filed an urgent chamber application on 31 July 2020 when the police claimed they didn’t know of Muchehiwa’s whereabouts 24 hours after the alleged abduction, despite his last known location is in the custody of the police at the Bulawayo Central Police Station.

Similarly, when uniformed police arrested Chin’ono, his whereabouts were unknown and his lawyers had to show the authorities footage of the police breaking a glass door at his home and arresting him for the police to admit that they had taken him.

Former South Africa’s Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela also threw her voice towards the call for the release of Chin’ono and award-winning Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker, Tsitsi Dangarembga, who was arrested with two other protestors on 31 July during anti-government protests in Harare.

Prof Thuli [email protected] tweeted: “We used to sing “Oliver Tambo tell Botha to release Mandela” South African Democrats are asking you @AfricanUnion  Chairperson President @CyrilRamaphosa to tell President @edmnangagwa to release #HopewellChinono #TsitsiDangarembga and other journalists and activists #Democracy.”

Replying to Madonsela’s tweet one social media user said “Thuli please stop interfering with Zimbabwe domestic affairs. Zanu-PF was democratically elected by the majority.  These are not journalists, they MDC members doing opposition work.” And [email protected] also said: “Notorious journalists who are being funded by US embassy and EU to destabilize the sitting president they must be cleared and answer to the accusation.”

The CJP also joined eight other press and human rights groups petitioning Cyril Ramaphosa, the chair of the African Union and the president of South Africa, to use all means available to secure the release of the jailed Chin’ono.

The letter also urged Ramaphosa to: “ensure that journalists across the continent are respected as essential workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and that they are not jailed for their work, in line with the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, adopted in 2019 by the African Union’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

Eminent African scholars and artists expressed their dismay at how the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community, organizations that were quick to tell the world that #BlackLivesMatter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and other human rights abuses by police in the United States, but are silent on the violation of Black Lives in Africa.

In their open letter addressed to the chair of the AU, Moussa Faki Mahamat and the Executive Secretary of the SADC, Dr. Stergomena Lawrence Tax, the group of African writers, wrote: “As writers and journalists of African origin who are connected beyond borders, we condemn the acts of violence on the home of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. We equally condemn his arrest and subsequent denial of bail.

They questioned why and how the Zimbabwe government was harassing and jailing journalists and those protesting against corruption instead of prosecuting the perpetrators in the coronavirus funds scandal.

The writers noted that in contrast, the former Minister of Health, Dr. Obadiah Moyo, who approved the contracts that Chin’ono exposed, was charged with criminal abuse of office and granted bail within 24 hours of his arrest and remains free while Chin’ono is still in prison.

“By arresting Hopewell Chin’ono arbitrarily, the Zimbabwean state has contravened the African Charter for Human Rights, in particular Articled intimidation and violation of the freedom of the press.

We note too that this is not the first time that individual and press rights have been violated by an AU member state with silence from the mother body.”

“We fear that as long as Zimbabwe continues to violate its citizens’ rights with impunity, we and fellow writers and journalists are in danger of having our rights violated in the different AU member states while the mother body stays silent. An injury to a Zimbabwean journalist for doing their job by the Zimbabwean state thus becomes a potential injury to us all by any rogue African government,” read the letter.

The writers and authors also demanded SADC, the AU and other international bodies to suspend Zimbabwe and that all countries that respect human and media rights must cut all diplomatic ties with a country that respects none.