First journalists, now their families

Death lists, arrests and torture are daily realities for independent journalists in Zimbabwe, but in the aftermath of the elections Mugabe has also started to threaten their children, writes Wilf Mbanga.

Another day, another death list. Despite having an arsenal of anti-press laws at his disposal, the leader of Zimbabwe’s junta, Robert Mugabe, has resorted to using brute force and the threat of assassination to silence the independent media. Yet another list, prepared by Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation, is doing the rounds of internet websites. I take a cursory look at the list and yawn. The same old names are there — all the stalwarts of our profession who endeavour constantly to bring to the world’s attention the appalling atrocities being committed in the name of sovereignty by the Mugabe regime.

Nobody on those lists panics — we’ve seen and heard it all before. Mugabe’s dirty tricks department has been circulating similar ones since 2000. We know this is just another hazard of working as a Zimbabwean journalist — our so-called president wants to kill us.

Since his power began to wane in the late 1990s, Mugabe has seen the independent media as his enemy. Then Mugabe lost the 2000 constitutional referendum and faced the spectre of electoral defeat at that year’s general elections by the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). He unleashed an onslaught against the media that has worsened with each passing year.

In 2003, the misnamed Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) made it mandatory for all journalists and media organisations operating inside the country to be registered — policed — by the Media and Information Commission (MIC). Headed by a Mugabe apologist, Tafataona Mahoso, the MIC holds the dubious honour of having closed down five independent newspapers, including the Daily News and its sister, the Daily News on Sunday, in its first two years.

During Mahoso’s reign countless journalists have been harassed, arrested, beaten, tortured and locked up, among them Gift Phiri, chief reporter for the independent weekly the Zimbabwean, who was tortured and had a finger broken. A cameraman has been killed. More reporters have been arrested in the past five years than during the first two decades of independence. In all these cases, there has not been a single conviction.

But this year’s general and presidential election, which Mugabe lost to the MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai, made the previous decade’s media repression look like a grandmothers’ tea party. The state-controlled media went into overdrive — its ham-fisted spin and sickeningly blatant deception would have been laughable had it not been so tragic.

The 2003 Act was used to control media coverage of the elections. Exorbitant registration fees were charged and only a handful of foreign correspondents accredited.

Lined up against Mugabe was a small array of independent voices — local weeklies the Independent, Financial Gazette and Sunday Standard (producing fewer than 30 000 copies a week between them), the London-based SW Radio Africa, the South Africa-based Voice of the People and the United States-based Voice of America’s Studio 7. The Zimbabwean joined them in early 2005. Exploiting a loophole in Aippa, the Zimbabwean is published outside the country and trucked in from South Africa. In the weeks leading up to the March 2008 elections and during their aftermath, circulation rose to 200 000 a week.

In the meantime, the reign of terror back home continues. The few remaining journalists inside the country play hide-and-seek with the police and do not sleep at home. Many have left for safer climes.

But back to the latest death threat. My eye is caught by a final paragraph: “The majority of those named on the list, although they are living in the bliss and security of the diaspora and the anonymity of cyberspace, their family members will not be so lucky.” It’s a chilling development. They are now threatening to harm our families. And we know this is no idle threat.

I and my fellow journalists have chosen to take up the weapon of words against Mugabe’s guns. We are prepared to face the repercussions of our actions. Some have already paid the ultimate sacrifice. But not my children. A line must be drawn somewhere — and soon. —

Keep the powerful accountable

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