Zimbabwe is currently Africa’s biggest press freedom violator in connection with coronavirus crisis, with no fewer than five arrests of journalists in the past 12 days. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Zimbabwean authorities to give the police clear instructions to let journalists work freely instead of detaining them.
The five journalists were all arrested while covering the lockdown that went into effect on 30 March and was ordered by President Emmerson Mnangagwa with the aim of containing the spread of the virus. The latest victim was Beatific Ngumbwanda, a reporter for the weekly TellZim, who was arrested for violating the lockdown in the southeastern town of Chiredzi on 8 April, although he showed his press card to the police. He was finally released after being held for nearly two hours.
Freelancer Panashe Makufa was detained and beaten by police when he photographed them enforcing the lockdown in a Harare suburb on 4 April. Newsday and Voice of America reporter Nunurai Jena was arrested while filming a police roadblock in the northern town of Chinhoyi on 2 April and was charged with “disorderly conduct” and having an out-of-date press card. Tatenda Julius, a reporter for the New Ziana news agency, was arrested in the eastern city of Mutare on 30 March, the first day of the lockdown, while freelancer Kudzanai Musengi was arrested in the central city of Gweru the same day. Like some of the others, he was accused of working with an expired accreditation card. The accusations of using out-of-date press cards ignore the Zimbabwe Media Commission’s recent statement that journalists could continue working with their 2019 press cards until the Commission got round to issuing 2020 cards.
“Ever since the start of the epidemic, Zimbabwe has been at the forefront of those African countries that are restricting the freedom to inform in an arbitrary and extremely disproportionate manner,” said Arnaud Froger, the head of RSF’s Africa desk. “Arresting journalists does not stop the epidemic. These press freedom violations also run counter to government directives authorizing journalists to work during the lockdown and to use their 2019 press cards, of which the validity has been extended. The government must give the police clear instructions to stop preventing journalists from doing their job of informing the public, which helps to combat the epidemic.”
The Zimbabwe branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) issued a statement reminding the police that journalists were one of the sectors providing “essential services” that are allowed to work during the lockdown. “Fight Covid-19, not journalists,” the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) for its part said in statement criticizing the information minister.
Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, RSF has registered around 40 press freedom violations in sub-Saharan Africa, including arrests or harassment of journalists and the imposition of very restrictive measures on the media. With 11 Covid-19 cases and three deaths currently reported, Zimbabwe has so far seen the biggest number of violations, most of them by the police.
Zimbabwe is ranked 127th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.