The new enemies of the state: reporters - Media - News - The Independent

The new enemies of the state: reporters

As foreign journalists face expulsion from Zimbabwe, there are many dangers confronting the press

When I graduated from journalism school eight years ago, nothing prepared me for the ordeal that was going to pass for my daily routine. Armed with all the basic tools guaranteed to make me one of my country's best newsmen (at least I hoped so, at the time) I was quite excited when I landed my very first job.

When I graduated from journalism school eight years ago, nothing prepared me for the ordeal that was going to pass for my daily routine. Armed with all the basic tools guaranteed to make me one of my country's best newsmen (at least I hoped so, at the time) I was quite excited when I landed my very first job.

Over the years I have, however, learnt that every working day in Zimbabwe as an independent journalist may be your last day on earth. And the events of the past few weeks have certainly convinced me that journalism in this country has become an endangered profession.

I bumped into Joseph Winter, the BBC journalist (and Independent contributor) who has been deported from Zimbabwe, at our favourite club in Harare on Friday. We spent the day discussing the deportation the previous day of the South African journalist Mercedes Sayagues. We even joked about the possibility of Winter being the next victim. Neither of us believed this could actually happen, as Winter had just been granted a two-year extension to his work permit, unlike Mercedes, whose permit had expired.

Winter phoned me later that night, saying that he had been summoned to the Department of Immigration for a meeting the next morning.

The next time we talked, Winter's voice was shaking. His work permit had been cancelled and he had been given just 24 hours to leave.

Winter's ordeal now exemplifies what can happen to any journalist working in Zimbabwe. After Robert Mugabe's government lost a national referendum on a new constitution last February, the lives of journalists - especially independent journalists - have changed dramatically.

Veterans of Zimbabwe's war of liberation, and supporters of the ruling Zanu PF party found the rejection of the draft constitution, which vested sweeping dictatorial powers in President Mugabe, hard to stomach.

They immediately started occupying white-owned commercial farms and beating up members of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. For journalists like myself, the ground really shifted, and there is still no sign that the situation will improve.

Every morning, I thank God that I and my family have not been murdered in our sleep. Every time I set off to drive to work, I wonder if I will get there safely.

In the past year, I have received a parcel containing a threatening letter and two bullets, hand-delivered to my home. These deliveries could only be from state security operatives, who have made it plain that they hate the independent media, and wanted me to know that they know exactly where I live.

The mere fact that I carry a press card saying that I work for The Financial Gazette, an independent paper, is reason enough for any of the war veterans that have now been drafted into the army or police force to beat me up. I am an investigative journalist who does not easily give up, and because of my position in the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), I've become a marked man.

In recent weeks, I have not only been verbally attacked by some senior government officials but I have also been assaulted by fellow-journalists working for the state-run media.

As secretary-general of ZUJ, I recently led a march of more than 100 media workers, together with leaders of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, and the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe. Although we were within our rights to demonstrate, we were quite unable to march, since we found ourselves surrounded by heavily armed riot police.

I was ordered to stop the march and inform my colleagues that the demonstration was illegal, despite the fact that we had been given official permission. We were also informed that for every single journalist there were 20 policemen determined to mete out "appropriate justice against our defiance".

The purpose of the march was to protest against the bombing of a printing press owned by a private newspaper, the Daily News, the violence perpetrated on journalists, and the continued attacks on the independent media by the Minister of State for Information and Publicity, Jonathan Moyo.

The Zimbabwe government has now virtually declared war on the country's small but vibrant independent media, and the foreign journalists based there. Independent journalists are barred from covering state functions. Only state journalists were allowed into the various ceremonies that were held for the late DRC president, Laurent Kabila.

Independent journalists also have a tough time getting interviews with top government officials. I asked for an opportunity to interview President Mugabe about the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, and was told the next window in the President's diary is three years from now, assuming he gets re-elected next year.

Today, nothing that the independent media does is seen as being in the interest of building the nation. We have all become enemies of the state and we expect the purging of independent journalists to continue up to the period of the presidential elections in 2002.

The year-long wave of farm invasions has also meant that I have to spend some time on the farms reporting on the spot. Unfortunately, this is tantamount to delivering myself straight into the hands of violent war veterans. I have had several brushes with war veterans and the hordes of rural supporters of the ruling party, who have taken over more than 1,000 white-owned commercial farms. It has become extremely difficult to operate as a journalist under these conditions.

Apart from the fact that supporters of the ruling party have taken it upon themselves to beat up any independent journalist they can lay their hands on, the government, through the Minister, Moyo, has promised to make it tougher for journalists to operate. And the onslaught on journalists has begun in no uncertain terms, with attempts to deport the BBC's Joseph Winter and Mercedes Sayagues over the weekend.

Winter has decided to flee Zimbabwe, despite a court order staying his deportation until Friday. He is lucky. Unfortunately, I have nowhere to flee to and have to stand the heat in Zimbabwe.

Like most Zimbabweans, the only option left for me is to hope for some divine intervention for protection against Mugabe's ferocious onslaught on perceived opponents.

In view of the rapidly deteriorating circumstances here, foreign journalists and other local journalists writing for foreign media organisations, met yesterday to try to formulate a survival strategy. We unanimously resolved to form a Foreign Correspondents Association of Zimbabwe, in order to mobilise support and to help any of our colleagues who might be caught in the crossfire.

The Association will enable us to speak with one voice, and co-ordinate a response when colleagues are under attack. We will meet again on Thursday to finalise the operational details of the Association.

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