There is a term, made famous by Higher and Tertiary Education minister Jonathan Moyo after Econet ransacked a local publication and confiscated equipment belonging to the media house. In the aftermath, Moyo said, such an assault on press was about “Big Men Trying to Hide Stink”.
By Maynard Manyowa
This last week will go down as one of the darkest days in Zimbabwe’s media circles and in the struggle for free press and free media. It has been a disheartening and heartbreaking, but expected.
A few weeks ago when Presidential spokesperson George Charamba promised to clamp down on errant media, deep down we all knew the worst was coming; a protracted assault on journalists all over the country.
After he threatened to wield the axe, the police chopped Zimpapers journalists down. There might not be a direct link, between the position echoed by the presidency and the actions of the police, but once one of the most powerful men in the country undermined press freedom like that, journalists are left to be sitting ducks at the mercy of all other powerful men and women privileged by the regime.
For those unaware, three staffers of public owned but State-operated Sunday Mail were arrested for publishing a story which reportedly linked some “police commissioners” to a poaching ring responsible for the poisoning of no less than two dozen elephants in Hwange.
Another reporter for the paper’s sister publication, The Herald, was arrested as well, for apparently soliciting a bribe from another “powerful man”.
They were detained in grisly conditions in police cells, before being shipped hastily to the courts, pathetically charged with publishing falsehoods and soliciting a bribe.
It must be put on record that, such occurrences reveal all that is wrong with our country, our government, and indeed the rot that has been bred from top down.
It is wrong for anyone to tell journalists what they can and cannot write. And when incidents of that nature happen, we ought to look at where the perception that media can be gagged and controlled comes from. We also need to examine why certain individuals and arms of state have a sense of impunity.
The answer lies in the obvious. It is a matter of public knowledge and experience that the police have generally been used and often unleashed by the government against civil society to push the regime’s agenda, or stifle dissent. It is this same authority that they were granted by the Zanu PF government that informs their actions today.
Whenever Zanu PF disagrees with anyone, their first resort has always been to frustrate them with arrests, arbitrary imprisonment, and detention. The police have been weapon-in-chief of the Zanu PF administration.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police, which is meant to protect the people of Zimbabwe, has often been called upon to terrorize and trouble the same citizens it must protect. MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirayi, his secretary general Douglas Mwonzora, human rights activists and former television personality Jestina Mukoko, lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa and even the abducted journalist Itai Dzamara have all at one point or another been on the receiving end of police brutality, harassment and victimisation.
Perhaps what it is indicting is not the charges against the journalists, but the attempts by the police to coerce the scribes into revealing their sources – which is unlawful by the way. It is rather sad, that the public body entrusted with enforcing the law blatantly violates it. It is an indicting move, which shows the motivation of the police is not to enforce the law, but rather to exterminate those who have access to information that can expose them.
The charges that the arrested trio face maybe different, but the underlying motivation for the detentions and trials of the journalists are the same. This is a deliberate attempt to frustrate, harass, punish and bully media personnel so as to guarantee favorable reporting.
Freedom of speech is a guaranteed and sacrosanct value of any democratic society, and press freedom is central to the growth and stability of any democracy. In Zimbabwe, these are constitutionally endowed values that ought to be respected by everyone including the police.
Absurdly, the police in Zimbabwe act as if they are not only above the law, but they are the law. Such is the culture of impunity in Zimbabwe, that even the police are considered above reproach.
The police have over the years become an instrument of torture, and it seems they too have become aware of this reality, and are willing to dispense it with or without the authority of the Constitution.
In his weekly column in the State-controlled daily, Nathaniel Manheru mentions how one commissioner brazenly bragged that the police could and would panel beat journalists. Even he notes that the attitude of the commissioner should it be echoes of the general sentiment of the entire force, is a dark and gloomy reflection which must send shivers down our spine.
As weeks turn into days, the case against the journalists should eventually be thrown out of the courts and rightly so. One thing will be clear, the media must not be a watchdog, but rather a lapdog, those who dare to be the latter will face the slammer.
As for the cases against the trio, the powerful men that engineered this assault on media, press, journalists and the Constitution will smile gleefully. For them, their point has been made, and any investigative journalist will think twice before publishing anything that ‘exposes the big men’s stink’.
For, these arrests were never about the law being broken, or enforcing it. They were about making a statement, and using state instruments to thump ‘errant’ scribes into submission. The big men will have succeeded in hiding their stink.
Enough said, this is Africa.
Maynard Manyowa is a political and social analyst. You can reach him for feedback via his website www.maynardmanyowa.com , on Twitter – @iAmKudaMaynard or by liking his Facebook page – Maynard Kudakwashe Manyowa