November marks three years since Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa took power from the late Robert Mugabe and promised to honor his people’s constitutional rights. But critics say freedom of the press is not being respected, pointing to the two arrests this year of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.
Hopewell Chin’ono exchanged words with prosecutors after his second arrest this year – both triggered by messages on Twitter.
The first arrest in late July was for a tweet supporting an anti-corruption protest. The second in November followed a tweet criticizing Zimbabwe’s chief justice.
He is now facing charges of inciting unrest and obstruction of justice, as well as demeaning the country’s National Prosecution Authority.
Chin’ono says authorities are sending a clear message with his arrests, and Zimbabwe’s journalists are listening.
“So, because of those arrests, consequently journalists are afraid of pushing the envelope and doing the right thing: practicing journalism, because they are saying to themselves, ‘if they could arrest Hopewell Chin’ono twice for practicing journalism what more could happen to us? We are not as prominent as he is and we could just languish and rot in the prisons,’” Chin said.
Former President Robert Mugabe often used restrictive media laws to arrest critical journalists during his 37-year rule.
When President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in 2017, he promised free expression – raising hopes of change among journalists and citizens.
Authorities have maintained that Chin’ono’s arrests were about upholding the law, not cracking down on press freedoms.
“Nobody has been arrested under any law which has to do with the media. But if laws have been broken in other sections of our security, obviously whether it’s a journalist, a lawyer or a doctor, people will be arrested. Other than that, the environment for the media to operate has been very enabling,” said Ndavaningi Mangwana, Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Information.
The Information Ministry official noted that six new television stations were just licensed in Zimbabwe, and added that foreign media houses are now free to operate in the country.
But press freedom groups say the Zimbabwean government has never stopped efforts to muzzle the media.
“One step forward, 10 (steps) backwards. Cracks on investigative journalism: case of Hopewell Chin’ono," said Tabani Moyo, head of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Zimbabwe. "The attacks on the industry have been aggressive and we have seen the weaponizing of the law; the introduction of the Cyber Security Bill which seeks to snoop and empower the military to crackdown on expression. The heavy handedness on the media has been highly pronounced.”
If the cybercrime bill becomes law, Zimbabweans accused of spreading falsehoods on social media could be punished with up to five years in prison.
Chin’ono is expected to go to trial next month for allegedly inciting the protest against corruption in July this year.