'I dream of a free and independent press'

Beatrice Mtetwa, a Zimbabwean lawyer and human rights activist, was named Human Rights Lawyer of the Year in December by the legal and human rights campaigning group Justice and civil rights campaigners Liberty. She also received the International Press Freedom Award this year, issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Mtetwa fights for the right to press freedom in a country currently facing an economic meltdown.
The Mail & Guardian Online asks Mtetwa about the greatest challenge facing an ordinary Zimbabwean, the struggles of the Zimbabwean media and the latest clampdown on the people—the Zimbabwean travel ban.

1. In what way does the Zimbabwean government control the press, other than through legislation?
There’s lots of other ways. Obviously the legislative route has other impacts on how the press is controlled. But you have seen that some of the press has been controlled through takeovers by state security agents so that virtually all media, except maybe for two independent newspapers, is controlled by the government through nominee companies that are controlled by the state. That’s one way of doing it.

Nominee companies [are formed when] they [the government] set up a company that then goes to buy a stake in an independent newspaper. For the outside world, it looks like that is an independent newspaper when in fact it is owned completely by the state.

So you find that there’s the pretense, or unreality, which actually isn’t correct because state agents will be controlling some of the independent newspapers. And, of course, then we have the state media, which basically isn’t supposed to be a state media, it’s supposed to be a public media. It is not used for the good of the public; it is used solely to prop up those in power currently.

2. Mail & Guardian, Zimbabwe Independent and Standard owner and publisher Trevor Ncube’s passport was confiscated in Bulawayo. Do you think he is seen as a threat by the government?
Well, obviously the independent press particularly, or the Independent and the Standard, have been critical of a lot of the government’s actions in Zimbabwe and that is a threat for the government—any voice that is critical of how the government is really handling issues in Zimbabwe, that press will be seen as a threat.

You’ve seen how the Daily News was shut down because it was critical of the government. So, clearly Trevor Ncube is deemed a threat to the government. I know for a fact that he is independent and has succeeded without patronage. That is always seen as a threat in Zimbabwe because a whole lot of the business people have survived because of patronage, and anyone who has succeeded without kow-towing to the ruling party and the government is seen as a threat.

3. You were on a list revealed by NewZimbabwe.com in June this year, of Zimbabwean critics Mugabe’s regime had hit with a travel ban. How do you feel about that?
I’ve seen the list. Yes, I am on the list of those whose passports are supposed to be withdrawn as and when they seek to travel. I don’t know how that will help anybody, frankly, because the withdrawal of a passport does not mean you cannot travel, for a start.

The people who have purported to really ban some of us from travelling are people who were able to travel when the [Ian] Smith regime was making it difficult for them to travel. How did they travel? They know that people can travel even if they withdraw their passports. The apartheid regime did exactly the same thing, but that did not stop people from travelling.

You know if you are able to prove that it has been made impossible for you to travel, everybody knows that you can apply for other documents to enable you to travel. So, it’s a very silly thing to do at a practical level, because they can never stop people from travelling by simply withdrawing their passports.

And, secondly, if their idea is to stop people from talking—I mean, here I am. I’m able to communicate with anybody out there, so how is stopping me from travelling going to stop me from commenting on the legal situation in Zimbabwe? I generally speak about the breakdown of the rule of law, and withdrawing my passport is not going to stop people from saying what I want to say.

You have a Swaziland passport?
That’s the other funny thing because I’ve never held a Zimbabwean passport, for instance. And then somebody put me on a list that purports to withdraw and invalidate Zimbabwean passports. I mean, you would expect someone who writes a list like that to at least go back to his or her computer and check whether or not they ever issued you with a Zimbabwean passport.

So, you have a silly situation where someone is purporting to withdraw a Zimbabwean passport that was never issued to me in the first instance. Of course they cannot withdraw a passport of another country because that passport belongs to another country. Just like how South Africa cannot purport to withdraw a Zimbabwean passport from a Zimbabwean, the Zimbabwean government cannot purport to withdraw a passport of another country.

Have you been travelling recently?
I have been travelling. I do have a document. Like I have said, the state ought to have gone to check who they have issued a passport to and that the people they’ve purported to list for withdrawal of Zimbabwean passports have Zimbabwean passports. It’s a bit silly for someone to put you on a list where they are invalidating Zimbabwean passports when they haven’t even checked if you hold a Zimbabwean passport.

4. Would you say that journalists are being ruled by fear in Zimbabwe?
Well, there’s absolutely no way that journalists will be free in Zimbabwe because they always have the spectre of prosecution hanging over their heads. That naturally will lead to fear and possibly self-censorship if you’re doing a story that the authorities will not like.

We’ve had many journalists being locked up under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act [which regulates journalists] because the government doesn’t like certain stories that they would have done. We have seen newspapers being shut down. We have seen journalists being refused accreditation because they may work for the wrong newspaper according to the government, or they may write stories that the government doesn’t like.

A journalist’s livelihood right now in Zimbabwe depends entirely on the government, because for you to practise as a journalist you have to be licensed by the government. That naturally will have a very, very huge impact on a journalist in an environment such as we have.

Are many victimised if they have boldly acted against the state?
You’ve seen a lot of journalists being arrested and prosecuted in Zimbabwe. It hasn’t really stopped journalists from the independent media from doing their work. But, I mean, in their subconscious, there has been no question that that [boldness] will have an impact.

They might not realise the self-censoring, but at the end of the day you will always have this possibility at the back of your mind. And even editors who are editing a story will always have at the back of their minds that “this could get us into trouble”, and it might affect the story at the end of the day.

Publishing newspapers is a business, so nobody who runs a business wants to have it shut down unnecessarily. So, the business aspect there will obviously play a role in how a newspaper projects itself. I don’t think any newspaper wants to end up in a situation where it is shut down, like what happened with a number of newspapers in Zimbabwe.

5. How do you think the deportation of foreign journalists has affected the way the world sees Zimbabwe?
Obviously it means that the world out there will not know certain things that are happening in Zimbabwe. If you are operating in Zimbabwe and you’re a Zimbabwean journalist, you will know the self-censorship that I’m talking about. There’s the fear that you will not be accredited. Of course there are journalists that are writing under pseudonyms, but that also is completely unacceptable because it means that if they [the government] do find out who wrote which story, that person could very well be in trouble.

But also it means that the government really has something to hide. Why would you deport journalists if everything is okay? What is it that you don’t want them to report to the outside world? Why should you stop external media from coming into Zimbabwe freely, to see for themselves if things are OK and everything is hunky-dory? Why can’t the external media come in at will and see for itself how things are working wonderfully in Zimbabwe?

6. Do you think the situation in Zimbabwe is being portrayed correctly in the foreign media arena?
It depends by what one means by the situation. There can be no question that the farm invasions, for instance, were not handled correctly by the Western media, because it was seen more as a black-white thing.

It was really more of the government kicking out white farmers from farms. And that really became the story when the story was about something much deeper. Nobody reported much on the fact that hundreds and thousands of black farm workers were rendered homeless because of those actions.

Children couldn’t go to school because basically their schools had been shut down because of the invasion, and there were very few reports on the fact that a lot of black farmers lost their farms under the same land exercise. Clearly that wasn’t properly handled, especially in the beginning, by the Western press because the whole thing became really a black-white thing and the government then tagged on to that by saying that they were making all these protests because their white cousins are the ones that were being kicked off the farm.

And that, then, has really remained the government’s line up to now—that it is a racist agenda. But the bottom line right now is that the economic meltdown is real. You just have to live in Zimbabwe to understand that. Bread is now approaching Z$60 000 [about R5] a loaf. It is a situation that is completely unacceptable and it affects your ordinary person in the street more than anyone else. There can be no question that there is a serious economic meltdown currently going on in Zimbabwe.

The issue of human rights has been documented. Even just talking about the media, you know the state media journalists are never arrested. Even if the government says that a story is incorrect, you’ve never heard of them being arrested. So, clearly there is a selective application of the law. And we have seen the courts, particularly the High Court or the Supreme Court, literally bend over backwards to accommodate government positions in circumstances where really they ought not to.

7. What challenges do you face when you defend the press in Zimbabwe?
The challenge has basically been the fact that the courts have become severely compromised, particularly the High Court and the Supreme Court. Even before you get to court, sometimes you don’t even know where your client is. When the police arrest your client, they will make sure that they don’t tell you where they have taken the client. Sometimes there’s difficulty just knowing which police station they [clients] are being held at.

You have difficulty knowing which policeman is responsible for their arrest because the state wants to make it as difficult as possible for you to access the client. Even when you do find out where your client is, you might not have access because you’ll be given all kinds of stories like, “Oh, the investigating officer is not here. He’s the only one that can give you access.”

Sometimes when you are given access, it is really not access at all because sometimes you are refused the right to interview your client privately.

There are all sorts of hurdles that basically are put on the way. But I must say that at the magistrate’s court level, where most of the journalists were prosecuted under the Access and Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the magistrates have really done a wonderful job. That is why we’ve had a 100% acquittal rate of all journalists prosecuted under [the Act]. They have not been intimidated into politicising the cases before them. They’ve done their job properly.

8. Could you give an example of how the state has tried to intimidate you in the past?
I think generally I’ve been lucky. I haven’t been intimidated much. I haven’t really been locked up like some of my colleagues have been. On the whole, I’ve been shoved here and there, I’ve been beaten up once, but I think that I have been relatively lucky in that I haven’t been as badly intimidated as some of my other younger colleagues in the profession.

9. What is your ideal dream for the press in Zimbabwe?
Speaking as a lawyer, particularly a human rights lawyer, my dream is one of a free and independent press that is not controlled through government-appointed commissions, and a complete overhaul of the judiciary; of a system where we would be able to have a judiciary that is appointed through a public process where basically the appointments are not politically motivated, where it is the best lawyers who are appointed as judges, as happens in most of the other countries where democracy is practised.

For me, as a lawyer, basically that’s my dream. To have a completely independent and impartial judiciary under a Constitution that does not concentrate power on just one person.

10. What is the biggest challenge facing an ordinary Zimbabwean?
Survival! An ordinary Zimbabwean today cannot get to work because it is expensive to get transport, if there is transport, because of the fuel shortage. Virtually the transport sector is broken down. Basic commodities, basic things for survival, food; you cannot believe how the prices have gone up in Zimbabwe in just the last eight weeks or so.

As I’ve said, bread has shot up from Z$28 000 [about R2,35] to now, yesterday it was at Z$52 000 [R4,37], and your guess is as good as mine as to how much it will be by Christmas.

Access to health facilities—the health system is completely broken down. ARVs [anti-retrovirals] are becoming extremely scarce because the company that was producing them is unable to produce them. So, you can imagine what happens to people that started taking them and suddenly they cannot access them.

Education—children are now being denied education because they were affected either because of the [Operation Murambatsvina] clean-up or basically their parents cannot afford to send them to school because of the economic meltdown. So, the ordinary Zimbabwean is faced with serious survival problems.

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