Crackdown on Zimbabwe's civil society
Alarms are being raised among Zimbabwe's civil society groups as a wave of police crackdowns continue unabated while the country edges closer to holding polls this year.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has written to the SADC, urging it to call for a summit on police intimidation.
The police have been on the warpath against non-governmental organisations (NGOs), conducting raids, random searches, seizing documents and banning shortwave radios. The radios, police say, advocate for regime change. Several stations, including Voice of America, Radio Netherlands and Studio 7, broadcast into Zimbabwe through shortwave radios.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian this week, Zenzele Ndebele, director of Radio Dialogue, a Bulawayo-based community radio station that has been lobbying for a radio licence for the past 10 years, criticised the police for creating laws. "The police are not law-makers, but are only law enforcement agents. There is no law that has been broken when people listen to shortwave broadcasts, but this is all an indication of the state's intention to tighten the airwaves ahead of the polls."
Earlier this month, Ndebele was arrested and had 180 shortwave radios seized by the police. "The case is still yet to be heard in court, we are still waiting for a court appearance, but all indications show that police may eventually drop the case."
Political observers indicate that the police are part of Zanu-PF's election strategy to harass NGOs and independent media, which are seen as supporting the MDC.
After a senior police officers' conference in November last year, the top brass released a statement, noting "with concern the negative influence and subversive activities" of NGOs and civil society organisations.
The conference resolved to "effectively utilise the intelligence units in monitoring the activities of organisations, maintain records of all organisations operating in their areas, engage the leaders of these organisations in respect to their activities and take appropriate action against organisations that are found to be operating outside of the law".
The growing climate of intimidation is seen as an indication by observers that the next election will be a high-stakes political contest.
Tiseke Kasambala, the Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, this week called on the police to end the intimidation.
"The systematic police campaign against civil society organisations appears designed to disrupt civil society operations and stop them from monitoring the human rights environment ahead of the elections … The government of Zimbabwe should respect and protect space for unfettered civil society operations."
Timeline of raids and arrests
January 14: Police raid offices of Zimbabwe Human Rights.
February 14: Police in Harare and Bulawayo arrest 190 members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise participating in annual Valentine's Day "love" protests.
February 15: Police detain George Makoni, an employee of the Centre for Community Development, and a local pastor for organising a church meeting in Chegutu.
February 19: Police raid the offices of Zimbabwe Election Support in Harare and Masvingo.
March 1: Police raid radio station Radio Dialogue's Ingwe studios.
March 8: Zimbabwe Peace Project director Jestina Mukoko is charged for operating an unregistered non-governmental organisation.
March 8: The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission says civic society organisations under investigation will be barred from monitoring the constitutional referendum and elections.
March 17: A day after voting closes, police arrest human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa and four Movement for Democratic Change officials in Harare.
March 21: Police arrest two cleaners – Spiwe Vera and Elizabeth Banda – at Tsvangirai's Avondale office.