Media: Tortured for refusing to reveal my sources

Mark Chavunduka, editor of Harare's `The Standard', was arrested by military intelligence as part of a clampdown in January. Here, as he awaits trial, he examines the difficulties on reporting in Zimbabwe
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IT IS now four weeks since my release from military detention following our article on 10 January 1999, headed "Senior army officers arrested - alleged coup attempt foiled".

The question I am most often asked is whether I regret having published the story, given its aftermath. My answer is "No". Without going into details that are sub judice at this stage, it is important for me to mention that during the entire period of my incarceration, my interrogators emphasised that they were not interested in the rights or wrongs of the story; they were not even saying it was false. All they wanted was the source of the article. I asked whether, since the Minister of Defence had said that the article was entirely fictitious, they would want us to print an apology and retraction, as is normal journalistic practice. Again they said that they did not want to hear about the minister or his denials, nor did they want any apologies - just sources.

The violent reaction from the state is a nightmare that awakens me to the fact that Zimbabwe has not yet entered the era of moral civilisation, and that all the treaties that have been signed since independence in 1980, enshrining the rule of law and the upholding of human rights and the constitution, are not worth the paper they were signed on.

There are a number of legal instruments which the government can, and has, invoked against those it sees as wayward journalists and publications.

Many of them are relics from the pre-independence years, and when Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF came into power in 1980 the repeal of these laws was cited as a priority. However, they have realised that these Draconian laws can come in handy, and they have remained on the statute books.

Among these is the all-embracing Official Secrets Act 1970. This open- ended piece of legislation has made it difficult for journalists to investigate cases of corruption within the government. There is also the Privileges, Immunities, and Powers of Parliament Act, which makes it an offence to refuse to be examined before, or to answer any question put by, parliament, or by a committee of parliament; to refuse to obey an order of parliament; or to publish the proceedings of a committee of parliament before the proceedings have been reported to parliament itself. This law was invoked against two private media journalists in 1992.

Worst of all is the Law and Order Maintenance Act. Among its long tentacles, it is a crime to bring the President, the government or the constitution into contempt; to promote feelings of hostility or to expose to contempt, ridicule, or disesteem any group of persons; to incite any person to resist or oppose the government, or any minister or official, other than by lawful means; to distribute "subversive" statements; or to publish any false statement or rumour that is likely to cause public alarm and despondency.

It is under this legislation that we are being charged. With such a wide array of laws lined up, the difficulties of reporting in Zimbabwe are evident. There are no special laws whatsoever to protect the media, or to grant it access to information. Through various fora convened by organisations such as the Zimbabwe Media Council, the Media Institute for Southern Africa, the Commonwealth Press Union and others, there have been attempts to press the government to amend laws that infringe upon press freedom. Up to 18 months ago, there appeared to be progress, with the government agreeing in principle with the media on certain constitutional changes. However, in the last few months there has been a dramatic about-turn on the part of the government. The Information Minister, Chen Chimutengwende, now speaks of tightening laws governing the media, and the Home Affairs Minister, Dumiso Dabengwa, told a funeral gathering in Bulawayo soon after our arrest that the government is to introduce new laws to ensure that there are no bad reports about the military.

Obtaining information from official sources has become more difficult, with growing hostility between the private press and the government in the last year. Mutual suspicion has grown out of a number of factors, among them the exposing of corruption within the government. Requests for clarification or comments are more often than not refused. Once papers publish the stories, often a rebuttal or denial is given by the government through the state-owned media, rather than through the publication which published the article. In our own case, every effort was made to obtain comment from the army, the police and the department of state security. No comment was given, but one day after The Standard hit the streets, the Defence Minister was on the state-owned television and radio denying that there had been any attempt at a coup.

The recent events have left me badly shaken, but have strengthened my and my colleagues' resolve to continue fighting for the truth. In doing this, we are alive to the fact that we are dealing with a government which is at its most dangerous: a government that is very nervous about the political mood in the country, one that is acutely aware that next year's elections could mark the end of the 18-year honeymoon, and one whose worst fear is that it may be asked to account for many years of corruption, chicanery and worse.

The situation at the moment is still fluid. We still have to stand trial, and there are several factors that may come into play. But, at great risk to ourselves and to our families and friends, we stand strong.