Fall 2000

Imprisonment and Torture of Journalists in Zimbabwe

Eventually the courts ruled the law that jailed them was unconstitutional.

By Mark G. Chavunduka
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Those of us who are journalists in Zimbabwe have witnessed under President Robert Mugabe’s 20-year rule a situation in which the government has become increasingly hostile to and intolerant of the independent press. Against newspapers and journalists whom it regards as troublesome, both legal and extra-legal measures have been taken.

Not so long ago I became one of the government’s targets. Personally and professionally, I bear the scars of this encounter.

In January 1999, The Standard published an article giving details of an attempted coup against Mugabe’s government. As editor of this newspaper, I insisted that we do all of the necessary checks before publishing this story. To do this, we held the article for an entire week to allow the government an opportunity to respond before we went to print. Despite many assurances that we would receive an official response, we heard nothing and went ahead and published the story.

Two days after the article was published, I was arrested illegally by Zimbabwe’s military. I was held and brutally tortured for nine days at military establishments in the country. My chief writer, Ray Choto, was also arrested and beaten. Throughout my illegal detention, my captors emphasized that they did not dispute the substance of the article. What they wanted us to tell them were the names of our sources in the military. Not unlike the disgruntlement that is so evident in civil ian society, many in the military were upset at how various matters of state were being handled. During our detention, it became clear to us that the country’s leaders were desperate to identify and plug what they said were increasing leaks to members of the independent press from within the military and intelligence communities.

Our torture was barbaric. It included having live electric wires applied to all parts of our naked bodies and being suffocated underwater in a process we later learned has a name within the military, “submarine.” Still, we did not reveal our sources, and to this day they remain protected despite an extensive search by the government within the army.

Our newspaper obtained court orders to try to win our release. And as word of our situation reached journalists and organizations throughout the world, international pressure was applied. This and, I believe, the realization that no information would be forthcoming from us, meant that after nine days of torture by the military, we were handed over to the civilian police. Subsequently, we appeared in court on charges of “publishing information likely to cause public alarm and despondency.”

In Zimbabwe, several laws impinge on what the press can do. Many of these laws date back to the 1960’s and were promulgated to stem growing political instability. In its election manifestos issued in 1979, the present government tried to remove these laws from the statute books. However, they remained in effect and have been used by this same government that once sought to repeal them.

Among these laws are the Official Secrets Act, the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament Act, the Prisons Act, the Defense Act, the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, and the most dreaded, notorious and all-embracing law, the Law and Order Maintenance Act. It is this final piece of legislation that was used to charge Choto and me.

We decided to challenge the constitutionality of the section of that law under which we were charged. That section said that “publishing information likely to cause public alarm and despondency” was a criminal offense, regardless of whether the published information was correct or not. Had the law and the charges against us been upheld, we would have each faced seven years in prison, a fine of $20,000, or both. However, in a court case that lasted 16 months, we were finally able to receive a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe. By ruling that this section of the law is unconstitutional, not only did the charges against us fall away but this part of the law is no longer in effect.

It is our hope that in time the entire Law and Order Maintenance Act will be challenged successfully in the nation’s courts. From my perspective, the threat to be most feared by Zimbabwe’s independent press—and the country’s society, in general—is the increasing politicization of our criminal justice system. Public offices, which are supposed to be impartial and apolitical—such as the Attorney General and Commissioner of Police—are systemically being staffed with political appointees. Instead of finding neutral administrators in the criminal justice system, political incumbents fill many of the jobs. Their decisions to arrest and prosecute people are not based primarily on the law or on tangible evidence that a crime has been committed but in the interest of settling a political score by party and government leaders.

Today, journalists and publications that are viewed as troublemakers are routinely harassed and victimized, even when it is clear that prosecution against them cannot be successful. What happens is that court cases are continuously postponed or eventually withdrawn. But the strategy is to weaken the individuals and organizations by straining them with heavy legal costs. In some cases, publications have nearly collapsed under the weight of these financial strains. This is particularly true of smaller, less established publications. This strategy by the government is both cunning and effective and leaves the authorities with “clean hands” when so-called opposition papers fold.

Another disturbing trend to observe is the growing impunity with which court orders are ignored by the government. Because the state chooses which judgments to respect and which to ignore, a mockery is being made of the entire judicial system. In my own case last year, the government ignored three orders from the Supreme Court that were issued within a space of five days, ordering my release from military custody.

It is not just for the sake of the press and press freedoms that the absence of integrity within the court system is worrisome. This affects all sections of civil society; ultimately the nation itself is bound to become lawless and ungovernable, as we’ve witnessed recently during the brutal, sometimes deadly takings of land.

Although I look enviously at my American friends, with their ability to call upon the Freedom of Information Act and sunshine laws, I refuse to be pessimistic. Recently, citizens in this country—including those in our case—have won some important cases in the courts, and we have also succeeded in changing, a bit, the political dynamics at the ballot box. Zimbabweans are, by nature, a hard-working and peace loving people, and I would hope that we can keep moving forward to a time when an environment of normalcy replaces chaos, in which a free and vibrant press can thrive.

Mark Chavunduka, A 2000 Nieman Fellow, is founding editor of The Zimbabwe Standard, a Sunday newspaper published in Harare. He worked his way up from cadet reporter to news editor at the weekly Financial Gazette, and later became the editor of Parade magazine, Zimbabwe’s largest monthly newsmagazine. Chavunduka was the first Zimbabwean journalist to be named a Nieman Fellow.

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