i-6be80361852615c0eac377c7d67d6356-Frank Chikowore.jpg
The government shuts down independent newspapers. It jams radio signals from outside the country. Internet access is sporadic. Inflation is out of control. A bill is in Parliament that would allow the government to censor private email communications.

Welcome to Zimbabwe, the south African country born out of the former Rhodesia in 1980 and led by strongman President Robert Mugabe every day since its independence from British colonialism. Though the country has immense natural beauty including the Victoria Falls and wildlife, it also has a rough recent history for punishing and censoring the press. Reporters Without Borders rates Zimbabwe’s press freedom as a very serious situation. (You can read the country’s capsule history here.)

Authorities closed down four newspapers after a 2002 law was passed, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which made it a crime to be a journalist without a special government-issued license.

Recently, I received an email from Zimbabwean freelance journalist, Frank Chikowore (pictured above), who was looking for assignments from Western media outlets. I had written about the trouble for the Zimbabwean media before for Online Journalism Review, covering the Daily News moving operations online. Chikowore, 26, updated me on the deteriorating situation there for independent journalists, who he says now have to live like “street beggars” if they aren’t working for the state-run media.

While former Zimbabwe-based journalists have moved out of the country and set up their own news sites such as ZimOnline and NewZimbabwe, the remaining journalists are faced with a choice of toeing the party line for Mugabe or facing possible jail time or worse for reporting the truth. Chikowore spent a horrifying night in jail in 2005 after filming police beating street vendors.

The following is an edited version of my email correspondence with Chikowore, who told me how bad things were for journalists in Zimbabwe — and he has little hope for the Internet becoming a transformative force inside Zimbabwe, where so few people have access to the Net.

Tell me a bit about your background in journalism.

Frank Chikowore: I started my journalism in 1999 with a provincial newspaper called The Nation that was covering stories for Matabeleland North Province, a province for the Ndebele minority. By then I was 19 years old and now I am 26. Because I could not pay for my rentals and bills with the salary I was getting, I took the “hard decision” (by then) to be a freelance journalist. My work was published by several media organizations, both print and electronic. That was before I was employed by the Weekly Times in 2005 as a senior reporter. Unfortunately, the paper was banned by the government in the same year and I was rendered jobless together with other employees. Up until today, I have been freelancing.

What’s the current state of the press in Zimbabwe?

Chikowore: The media in Zimbabwe is so polarized. The government controls the majority of the newspapers. It also runs all the radio stations and the only television station that the country has. We have only one independent daily newspaper which is not so independent as it is being run by well-known state security agents who were exposed in what became to be known as the Mediagate scandal. I am talking of the Daily Mirror which is published by the Zimbabwe Mirror Newspapers Group. The group also publishes one weekly paper, The Sunday Mirror.

Four newspapers have been closed by the government since the promulgation of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in March 2002. These include the Daily News, the Daily News on Sunday, The Weekly Times and The Tribune. Several journalists are living like street beggars as a result of these closures.

Tell me about the time you were arrested in 2005 by police. How long were you in jail and how did you get out?

Chikowore: I had just finished an assignment when I bumped into police details beating vendors whom they accused of illegally dealing in foreign currency and making the city of Harare dirty. I started filming the incident. The police pounced after realizing that I was capturing their heinous activities on camera. They assaulted me with cleched fists, booted feet and butts of their guns. The police details used the sharp-pointed front part of the gun to assault me. It was really painful. If the trigger had been pulled by mistake during the beating, I would have been history by now. At one point the gun was pointed onto my head. I am short of words to explain how I felt at that moment…tears. That was the first time I turned to God.

They took me to Harare Central Police Station, beating me along the way, accusing me of being an enemy of the state. It was difficult for my lawyers to locate me as I was being taken from one room to the other. They found me after about three hours of searching. Normally it takes less than five minutes to locate a prisoner at the station. What boggles my mind is that the police went on to assault me even though I had a government license to practice journalism. Even if I didn’t have the accreditation, the police had no right to assault me. It was horrible, the cells were overcrowded and they were very filthy.

I was in jail for one night, in an overcrowded cell with no access to food and water. For me, a night in jail was like a decade because of the inhuman conditions that prisoners are living in. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t go there (to the police cells) again. It was like I had been sentenced already. They accused me of all sorts of things, including mercenarism. They asked me about a shadowy organization calling itself Zvakwana that is a strong critic of President Robert Mugabe’s administration. Frankly, I do not know who was/is behind this shadowy group. I am actually interested in getting to know who is calling the shots in this organization just like the police are. But the police would hear none of it.

I was released without charges being leveled against me, thanks to the Media Institute of Southern Africa and Harare lawyer Jessie Fungai Majome who facilitated my release. The police could not charge me because I was doing my duties lawfully, they had not basis whatsoever for leveling criminal charges against me.

[For first-person accounts from Chikowore on his jail experience, read this story and this one.]

Do you fear that reporting news in Zimbabwe is dangerous and that you could be arrested again? How do you protect yourself from that?

Chikowore: When one is a journalist in Zimbabwe, he or she must be prepared to be arrested anytime. I remember a time when I lost my girlfriend because she didn’t want to be associated with journalists for they are always targeted by the state. The fear of being arrested has caused many journalists not to do their work effectively in some instances. But that is no excuse for not following the ethics of the profession; one really has to be serious and aggressive to get the readers and listeners informed.

Be that as it may, I have always tried to be very objective in my reporting. One cannot claim that he is a protected journalist unless he is working in cahoots with the state. We are informed that the intelligence has planted some of its operatives in the media and there has killed debate among journalists on key issues.

How do journalists get the news out around the censorship? Do they use the Internet or blogs?

Chikowore: Unfortunately blogging is still very unpopular in Zimbabwe and most African countries. Of course the use of the Internet has enabled journalists to transmit their news and information to their readers and listeners but the cost of doing so is very [high] considering that several journalists are not gainfully employed and they live by the grace of God. In fact, journalists have been reduced to beggars in Zimbabwe. Journalists now use pseudonyms as the government continues with its onslaught against independent journalists. The cost of registering as a foreign correspondent has become inhibitive for journalists to register — hence they prefer using pseudonyms.

Do more people have Internet access now than a few years ago? Are there cyber cafes? Who can afford Net access?

Chikowore: The majority of the people have no access to the Internet in their homes. People rely on Internet cafes while those who are privileged to be working access the Internet at their work places. Even some of the employed citizens do not have Internet access as it is only restricted to their bosses. There is generally no improvement in terms of access to the Internet by the people. Although there are quite a number of Internet service providers in Zimbabwe today, the only fixed telephone provider, TelOne, is taking too long to connect phone lines which are used by subscribers to connect to the Internet. Radio link is still very unpopular and expensive for Zimbabweans.

Has the government tried to block Internet sites or access? Which ones?

Chikowore: The government has not blocked any Internet sites but has proposed a law that will allow state agents to censor email communication which several human rights activists have condemned saying it undermines the right to privacy. The bill is before Parliament and it will become law once Parliament approves it. The chances of it being approved are very high as President Mugabe’s party has a two-thirds parliamentary majority and it is known for rubber-stamping anything that is brought to Parliament by Zanu PF [ruling party] members.

The state is currently jamming Studio 7 broadcasts to Zimbabwe. The station broadcasts Zimbabwean news and information from Voice of America studios in Washington, DC, and is run by exiled Zimbabwean journalists. The government has described Studio 7’s broadcasts as hostile. The privately owned Voice of the People (VOP) radio station was also closed recently. Capital Radio was also closed and SW Radio Africa was jammed at several occasions. The same happened to Joy TV that was owned by veteran journalist-cum-politician James Makamba. The media is really not free.

Is there a way for us in the West to help out the situation with journalists there being beggars?

Chikowore: I would want to urge our media colleagues in the international community to continue condemning the harassment of media practitioners as and when it is necessary. This would help in keeping the government on its toes and at the same [time] I think this would make the operating conditions better for journalists. I would really encourage other media organizations to adopt some of the journalists that were left jobless after the closure of their organizations. That would make them people of better standing in society. Even getting scholarships for them would be another great idea. At least that would rehabilitate their disturbed minds.

Do you have hope that things might change there politically or in the media? What might happen?

Chikowore: The only solution to all the problems we are facing in Zimbabwe [is] a political solution. The present government has no new ideas and what is needed is fresh blood. We can still give them the benefit of doubt but there must be political will which is currently lacking. The media has a greater potential of developing as the literacy rate is getting higher by the day, but there is no one who is prepared to invest in the media today because of the tough legislations that govern the operations of the media. Until such draconian laws like AIPPA are scrapped, that is when we can talk of development in the media sector.

*****

CPJ’s Take and More Resources

Elisabeth Witchel, the journalist assistance program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, has followed the plight of Zimbabwean journalists closely. She told me via email that Chikowore’s comments about the terrible situation in Zimbabwe was in line with what she had heard from other journalists who had left Zimbabwe. Here are some of the main points she made to me:

It is important to understand that many journalists who were forced out of work [in Zimbabwe] are extremely vulnerable to arrest and other forms of persecution without the protection of established media outlets. Moreover those who have been driven out of the country are often victims of smear campaigns by the government. Competition, cultural differences and legal obstacles make it very difficult for even an experienced, well respected journalist to find work in his field in a new country.

Many journalists I met are resourceful, adaptable people who are willing to work in any capacity they can and have taken service sector and factory jobs to get by and help their families. Unfortunately when a journalist is squeezed out of the field and into this kind of work, it gives fodder to the Mugabe administration to paint an unfair, demeaning picture of its critics.

Zimbabwe media outside the country — online, print and radio — plays an important role in keeping the news coming out of Zimbabwe and into the international community. Sadly penetration of exile media into Zimbabwe is quite limited, but some does get through and circulates. It also keeps the Diaspora engaged and informed and able to develop campaigns to bring global attention to the problems in their country, which many Zimbabwean journalists feel are underreported in the international media. Blogs can certainly help bring attention to this and add to the diversity of views and number of platforms for political debate.

For further reading on the Zimbabwe political and media situation, check out these news stories, blogs and independent sites:

Zimbabwe’s Exiled Press [CPJ’s Dangerous Assignments]

Inside Zimbabwe [PRI’s The World]

Inside Zimbabwe — Reporter’s Notebook by Sheri Fink [PRI’s The World]

Outrage at Zimbabwe Bugging Plan [BBC]

Opposition Party’s Split Widens in Zimbabwe [WorldPress.org article by Frank Chikowore]

Anti-Mugabe humour keeps cell phones buzzing in Zimbabwe [ZimOnline]

The Zimbabwean Pundit Blog written by anonymous eloquent female Zimbabwean writer, who contributes to AfricaNews.

The Bearded Man Blog written by British man who worked for years in Zimbabwe as a police prosecutor and trucker, now living in the UK.

ZimOnline Online news site based in Johannesburg, South Africa, tries to get international exposure for breaking news from Zimbabwe.

New Zimbabwe Tabloid online news site based in Wales; Chikowore says it has largely taken the side of Professor Arthur Mutambara in the split of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party.

What do you think? Is the situation in Zimbabwe hopeless for journalists or is there a way for Westerners and bloggers to help bring attention to their plight? Are there other good online sources for news from Zimbabwe? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

UPDATE: Ethan Zuckerman, co-founder of Global Voices, has a fascinating account of his recent visit to Zimbabwe and the situation for the media there. The media outlets that aren’t censored — such as foreign newspapers or satellite TV channels — are too expensive for the average citizen, so most people there and abroad have no idea what’s really going on. People are getting creative, distributing newsletters by hand or giving cassettes with uncensored news to bus drivers to play on routes. Here’s a key passage:

My activist friends in Zimbabwe are unanimous in their diagnosis of the media situation: Zimbabwe needs an independent daily newspaper and a radio station so that the general populus can get information critical of the government. They’re experimenting with alternatives — community newsletters printed on A4 paper, distributed in “high density suburbs” (townships) from person to person; news programs and activist songs distributed on CD and cassette.

But if they were suddenly given a license to broadcast or publish a paper, there would still be obstacles. The Zimbabwean economy is so fragile that there’s very little advertising support for papers. The history of harrassment, imprisonment and torture of journalists makes many writers fearful to report certain stories. Criminal libel law means that libel can carry jail time as well as fines, which helps prevent attacks on public figures. And the fact that journalists must be licensed and must renew their accreditation every two years helps keep pens down as well.

What’s really going on in Zimbabwe? I don’t know. Neither do you. And neither do most Zimbabweans, whether they live at home or abroad. Watching the BBC or CNN won’t help — they’re not on the ground here either. And like every other situation in Zimbabwe, it’s both better and worse than you’ve heard.