Deputy Chief Secretary in Presidential Communications (long title for presidential spokesperson) George Charamba. Photo: Supplied
As Al Jazeera’s “Gold Mafia” expose continued to unearth the shocking corrupt dealings of associates of Zimbabwean ruling politicians, there was an expectation of a response from government officials.
A response has indeed come. A top official, Deputy Chief Secretary in Presidential Communications (long title for presidential spokesperson) George Charamba, is threatening journalists with imprisonment.
Some of the top journalists in the country have already expressed concern over this. Editor of online outlet ZimLive, Mduduzi Mathuthu, posted a tweet pointing out that the government would act against them.
In late February, Al Jazeera aired promos for their March programming. In those teasers, they flagged a four-part documentary series on the “Gold Mafia” in southern Africa, with Zimbabwe being the centre of focus. That got everyone’s attention.
In Harare they were agitated.
True to Igbo wisdom as articulated in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a tadpole jumped in broad daylight — something was after its life.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which is implicated in money-laundering allegations, responded with a preemptive long denial with its signature cliche of “dismiss[ing] the false allegations with the contempt they deserve” before a single episode had been aired.
The expose names quite a number of characters who do not necessarily have a clean reputation in Zimbabwe — and so no surprises. What has shocked people is the scale and brazen detail in which they carry out these activities.
That is not all. Al Jazeera’s phased expose implicates high offices.
That is how the presidential spokesperson and journalists come into the picture.
In a threatening tweet, Charamba, who uses an account that he has confirmed to be his, despite the fact that its profile is not in sync with his position and the role he plays in the government, warns that: “FRIENDLY ADVICE TO ALL RECKLESS JOURNALISTS: Al Jazeera is not a court of law before whose claims impart privileges to defamatory utterances.
“It is merely some weaponized channel. If you are reckless enough to repeat what its phoney documentary defamatorily says, hoping to plead: ‘I heard/saw it on Al Jazeera,’ you will be sorry for yourself. Do not for once think there is grit to act against defamatory and politically motivated journalism. Faceless Twitter names egging you on will not be a factor when brickbats come. Be warned.”
Criminal defamation has been abolished by the constitutional court but in a country where journalists’ safety has never been guaranteed, this is sufficient warning to anyone interested in covering this expose.
Charamba has ignited a loop of self-censorship. Those who the Zimbabwean government targets have a tough time. In his threat, the presidential spokesperson ominously made reference to jailed opposition parliamentarian Job Sikhala to signal how the government would deal with journalists who fell out of line in coverage of the story.
What Charamba is trying to avoid is the amplification of the details in the documentary. If credible journalists are gagged, lesser-known, “faceless Twitter names” get to share the story and their messages do not carry the same weight as journalists with an established professional reputation.
There is a method to this. In Zimbabwe, it is not Al Jazeera’s broadcasts that are accessible to the majority, it is the screenshots forwarded to WhatsApp groups. If journalists and news outlets do not cover a story, the screenshot information distribution system is starved and this story could fade without the virality and impact that journalists would prompt.
Some Twitter users have been quick to dismiss Charamba’s threat by reminding him that the time when state media used to dominate the information landscape is long gone. They reckon that people will use social media to pick up these stories, despite the threats. The implication here is that we can do with the silence of journalists. That underestimates Charamba’s actions.
Professional journalists and their credible journalism are the heart of the functioning of democratic processes. Choking journalism is a calculated assault on democracy and it must be treated as such. It is not a rant or reckless banter by an overzealous Harare bureaucrat.
The presidential spokesperson’s threat is blistering. He draws parallels with how Al Jazeera journalists were victimised by the Egyptian government. In 2021, it released Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Hussein who it had detained for four years without charges or trial.
This attempt at silencing journalists a few months before elections must be resisted. The United Nations has an elaborate Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity and one of the actions is coalition building. That must be a starting point for confronting the government on its latest attempts to gag journalists and to undermine constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression.
Individual journalists and media houses must not be left alone to deal with threats from powerful political actors. There must be collective confrontation of those with political interests and demands for accountability and respect for the journalism profession.
As the 2023 Zimbabwean election draws close, the safety of journalists must be protected. These signs of an appetite to trample on it are enough.