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Zimbabwe: Enemies of the State

Morgan Tsvangirai

A cameraman, Edward Chikomba, was killed after he shared video with the outside world of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (shown here leaving hospital) after Tsvangirai was arrested and beaten unconscious by Robert Mugabe's police force.

Editor's Note: In the last of our three-part series, our anonymous correspondent in Zimbabwe details what it is like to work as an independent journalist in one of the world's most repressive regimes. "By exposing the government's shortcomings journalists have become enemies of the state," says this writer. "I work in fear every day." Read her dispatch about the crackdown below.

Since the latest round of election-related violence, our reporter has gone into hiding in the capital of Harare. From her safe house, she spoke with iWitness correspondent Joe Rubin and described the frightening conditions in the city over the last few days.

WATCH VIDEO

Read more in-depth reports from our correspondent in Zimbabwe and a related video from South Africa in our iWitness section.

* * *

Practicing journalism in Zimbabwe has become a crime punishable by death.

Last year, my colleague Edward Chikomba learned this the hard way. I still can't believe he's gone -- the jovial spirit, the burly tummy, the camera bag he always wore slung backward over his shoulder. He worked for the country's only TV station, the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

Whenever I met up with him, he would complain that his videos were always edited by government officials and that his wages were pathetic. "I have to feed my children," he often said. To make ends meet, he had begun to shoot extra footage to sell to foreign networks abroad.

In March 2007, Edward finally got a scoop. He captured footage of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai after he was beaten in police custody for attempting to lead a march protesting Mugabe's rule. The story made a big impact. After the video was beamed over satellite TV channels around the world, Mugabe was summoned by a group of African heads of state to explain the treatment of Tsvangirai. Mugabe had always denied that the police were torturing opposition members. Edward's footage angered and embarrassed the government.

Edward told me jokingly that he had the feeling someone was following him. He also said he got a note at home telling him, "You will pay for Tsvangirai."

Afterward, Edward told me jokingly that he had the feeling someone was following him. But I knew him better. Behind his infectious laugh I sensed he was hiding a cold fear. He also said he got a note at home telling him, "You will pay for Tsvangirai." He brushed it aside.

A few days later, Edward was abducted from his Glen View home in the capital of Harare by men in a white truck. He was eventually found dead by the roadside, beaten and bruised. Edward paid the ultimate price for his love of the profession. To this day, there has never been any investigation into who is responsible for his murder.

Edward's death shook me to the core. I made a decision I had put off for far too long. I moved my two-year-old son to another town to live with my aunt. I can only hope that will protect his identity.

Working In Fear

I have wanted to be a journalist since I was 15 years old. I remember reading accounts by intrepid Zimbabwean reporters who had exposed a group of corrupt government ministers, using state funds to buy and resell cars for their own profit. The investigation gripped the nation. I knew I had found my calling.

But now I work in fear every day. The job has become so dangerous that I am grateful to see some of my fellow journalists still working each day. In February, a handwritten death threat and a pack of bullets were delivered to an independent newspaper office. The threat was reported to the police, but nothing happened. The police claim they are "still investigating."

A government document leaked to the media has been making the rounds. It targets 15 journalists who have been described as "agents of the West" and "sell-outs" that need to be "eliminated."

Mugabe's government has cracked down especially hard on journalists over the last five years. What was once a noble profession has been driven underground by draconian laws and police harassment.

A government document leaked to the media has been making the rounds. It targets 15 journalists who are considered a security threat to Mugabe. I have little doubt about the authenticity of the document.

Mugabe seems paranoid about any criticism. The list describes the 15 journalists as "agents of the West" and "sell-outs" that need to be "eliminated." Eight of those 15 have already left the country.

Sometimes it seems as if I am one of the last in a dying profession.
There are only two independent newspapers left in Zimbabwe -- The Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard. Both are weekly papers. I think the government has let these two survive in order to hoodwink the rest of the world into thinking that there is some small measure of free speech here.

Man steps on bank note.

With inflation hovering at 1.7 million percent, most Zimbabwean currency notes are worthless and litter the streets.

Mugabe is cunning. Only people in larger cities have access to these newspapers, and the papers are expensive, far beyond the reach of most people grappling with an inflation rate of 1.7 million percent.

Newsprint in Zimbabwe is supplied by a monopoly, Mutare Board & Paper Mills, so that the newspapers have no control over cost. The government-owned company decides how much newsprint to sell to which customers. In that way, the government tightly regulates the number of papers the independent media can print.

There are also wide areas where these papers can't be distributed at all. In the Mugabe party strongholds of Northern Zimbabwe, gangs of youth militia burn any copies they find. Government supporters say that independent papers poison people's minds.

Zimbabwe's only daily newspaper is the state-owned Herald. It publishes government propaganda, so it is distributed unhindered nationwide. A colleague tells me that the Herald editor gives all finished pages to the Information Minister for approval before going to print. Zimbabwe's four radio stations are also state-controlled and report directly to the Information minister. Applications to the government for new newspapers, radio stations or TV licenses are simply ignored or thrown out.

A Game of Cat and Mouse

By exposing the government's shortcomings, journalists have become enemies of the state. Most have been driven into exile out of fear for their lives. Twelve of the 20 reporters I trained with at college have already left the country.

Every day, reporters must play a game of cat and mouse with the police in an endeavor just to do their job.

Not long ago, an editor was jailed for two days for an opinion piece he published by one of the leaders of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change.

Not long ago, an editor was arrested for an opinion piece he published by one of the leaders of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The article suggested that Mugabe has run Zimbabwe into the ground since helping the country achieve independence in 1980.

The editor was jailed for two days, and I attended his trial. He was charged under the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. This law makes it a crime to publish or even utter aloud any statement that may cause hatred toward the President. I almost laughed in court. What sort of a law is this? Thankfully, the editor was released on bail.

I attend all court hearings of arrested journalists. Partly, I am studying for my own defense in case I, too, am in the dock one day. The charges are often flimsy. In April, freelance journalist Stanley Karombo was arrested and held for three days just for taking notes during Mugabe's Independence Day speech.

Police initially charged Karombo with invading Mugabe's right to privacy. That charge fell away comically in court when the judge pointed out that the president was making his speech in public. Karombo was eventually acquitted.

All sorts of ridiculous charges are levied that do not really exist under the law. Countless journalists have been arrested and fined for a vague charge the state calls "abusing journalistic privilege."

Journalist released outside Harare courthouse.

Gift Phiri, a correspondent for the London-based weekly The Zimbabwean hugs his wife outside the Harare magistrates court. Phiri was hospitalized and treated for injuries resulting from the beatings he received during four days in police custody.

Fewer and fewer lawyers are willing to represent journalists in court, and the state has begun to target them as well. Prominent media and human rights lawyers Beatrice Mtetwa and Harrison Nkomo have been locked up several times and tortured by police for coming to the defense of journalists.

Banana and Orange Peels

Under Zimbabwe's media law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, all journalists and media outlets must register with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC). Every January, after rigorous screening, the MIC hands out white plastic accreditation cards to a handful of journalists. Most are denied.

The MIC requires journalists to surrender personal details including home address and phone number in order to get approval. Most journalists do not bother to apply since giving out such personal information is just too risky.

Even with the card, there is still no guarantee of protection from the police or the Central Intelligence Organization. A correspondent for the London-based weekly The Zimbabwean landed in the hospital after 4 days in police custody. His crime was covering an opposition party rally, even though he had official accreditation to do so.

The conditions in Zimbabwe's prisons are infamous. I spent a day in one recently after being arrested at a march. The cell reeked from the stench of overflowing toilets, and prisoners had no choice but to relieve themselves on the floor. The cell was crammed with four times as many people as it could hold. No one could lie down so we had to take turns sleeping. There was very little food available and some prisoners have starved to death.

Beatrice Mtetwa

Prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa has spent years defending Zimbabwean journalists, many of whom have been arrested for their work.

The former news editor of the Daily News, Luke Tamborinyoka, who has been arrested several times for reporting, remembers the conditions there. "During one of my several arrests, I sneaked in a banana and an orange," he later told The Standard. "There was a stampede for the banana and orange peels by inmates. Such is the level of hunger in prison."

The Last Election

Covering the election in April was a mammoth task for journalists, especially foreign reporters. Mugabe's government drew up a list of who would be allowed to report and broadcast from inside Zimbabwe. Media that it deemed "hostile" were banned from reporting. This list included CNN, BBC, MSNBC and the Associated Press. Even African outlets considered friendly to the state were denied access.

A number of foreign journalists entered Zimbabwe undercover as "tourists." But many of them did not realize that you can't even trust other journalists here. A number of foreign correspondents were sold out by state informers posing as reporters and were arrested or deported as a result. But they are the lucky ones. Their embassies and governments come to their aid when they are arrested. We local journalists are here on our own without a safety net.

Even I never know whom to trust. Recently, a colleague with whom I'd worked for a number of years was dismissed after it was discovered he was providing intelligence to Mugabe. It's not even safe to share notes in a newsroom.

But I can't let this stop me. Not many things satisfy me more than finding the truth. If atrocities are occurring here, someone has to expose them.

Related Stories

Zimbabwe: Shopping for Survival
Read the author's first report from Zimbabwe as part of our new iWitness series. Traveling hundreds of miles to find food and basic supplies, our correspondent describes how impossible daily survival has become for millions of Zimbabweans.

South Africa: "Go Away and Fight Mugabe"
Also in iWitness, FRONTLINE/World talks to a young American filmmaker over webcam who was filming a documentary in a Johannesburg township recently when xenophobic riots broke out. The violence was mainly directed against refugees flooding in from neighboring Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies
Watch our broadcast story from 2007, where FRONTLINE/World goes undercover in Zimbabwe to find a population struggling with hunger and poverty, and living in fear.

REACTIONS

(anonymous)
I love this story!

(anonymous)
The rich and powerful nations should no longer stand around and watch the continuation of these atrocities. It is time to rise up to our moral standards and give a voice to the unheard and a hand to the helpless. It is unfair for these people to live in constant fear and control while we live our lives of prosperity and apathy in the free states.

(anonymous)
"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Mugabe and his thugs join a long list of dictators who have oppressed their people and who will die in infamy.
Congratulations to your brave reporter. Someone still cares about the truth.