Innocent Ruwende Senior Reporter
The Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (Zinef), lobby groups and other media organisations have condemned police for the arrest of The Sunday Mail editor Mabasa Sasa, investigations editor Brian Chitemba and reporter Tinashe Farawo following the publication of a story in the latest edition of the weekly which fingered a top cop in the killing of elephants at Hwange National Park.
In a statement Zinef said: “This is a serious violation of Section 61 and 62 of the Constitution which guarantees Press freedom which also guarantees the protection of sources.
“We urge the police to investigate and not to arrest in order to investigate. It is unhelpful and smacks of repression to arrest editors and journalists on issues that are not criminal but is part of their legitimate work, in this particular case, to expose the rot in our society.”
Zinef said police must not cover up for its failures to protect Zimbabwe’s wildlife by threatening the media, stressing there were better and more civilised ways of dealing with such cases.
For instance, the police could have lodged a complaint with the Zimbabwe Media Commission or VMCZ, or sought to engage the editor and his staff for the right of reply to set the record straight.
Zinef said the arrests appear to be a continuation of a worrying trend where journalists are arrested and ill-treated by police for carrying out their duties, saying police on October 23 detained and interrogated three journalists in Rusape.
The police detained freelance journalist Sydney Saize, Bernard Chiketo of The Daily News and Kenneth Nyangani, a correspondent for NewsDay, for more than an hour after they arrested them while they were covering a demonstration staged by some MDC-T party supporters outside Rusape Magistrates’ Court.
The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) also condemned the arrest and urged police to conduct internal investigations.
“Why are they arresting the messengers? Why not conduct investigations to see which officials are involved? The issue of elephant poaching is of national importance. It was their right as journalists to expose the scandal. We condemn these acts of harassment. Police should not be seen anywhere near the newsroom. They should conduct their own internal investigations,” said ZUJ secretary-general Foster Dongozi.
VMCZ also yesterday said it condemned in the strongest terms the arrest and detention of the journalists. “The trio’s arrest is outrageous and unacceptable in a country that purports to uphold freedom of expression and freedom of the media,” said VMCZ executive director Loughty Dube.
“VMCZ expresses concern that the arrest of the three newsmen happened while journalists worldwide were commemorating the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. Suffice to say, it is the role of the media to play the watchdog role and be the guardian of public accountability, including on law enforcement agents and other public officials.”
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) national chairperson Kumbirai Mafunda said: “We are of the view that there are better ways of seeking redress if police feel that their reputation has been harmed. Such redress includes approaching VMCZ or holding a Press conference outlining their position without detaining journalists.”
Amnesty International said the detention of the three journalists was a shocking attempt to threaten freedom of the Press and called for their immediate release.
“Arresting journalists on the basis of ‘publishing falsehoods’ has a chilling effect that may restrict the ability of the media to expose alleged criminal activities by the authorities,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Southern Africa.
“These actions create a climate of fear in Zimbabwe and perpetuate impunity.” Dozens of journalists in Zimbabwe have been charged in the past under the Criminal (Reform and Codification) Act for “publishing falsehoods”. They were all subsequently acquitted.
“Authorities must not target journalists. Media workers must be allowed to do their work without harassment or intimidation,” said Mwananyanda.
In statement yesterday, Zimpapers Editors Forum chairman Isdore Guvamombe noted the arrest of three journalists with a deep sense of shock and regret.
Guvamombe said the ZRP and the media’s relations had solved crimes and kept the country safe, adding that this co-operation had demonstrated how the two institutions’ symbiotic relations helped communities.
“That the three journalists would have spent two nights in police cells before eventually being presented in court on Wednesday (today), November 4, for doing not so much more than practising journalism, illustrates the vindictive and heavy-handed approach chosen by the ZRP.
“Just as the ZRP sometimes arrests, in good faith, only for suspects to be acquitted in court, media organisations also always endeavour to publish only what they believe to be true and in the national interest.
“But mistakes also do happen in the newsroom, and the response of any wronged individual or organisation should be never to respond with handcuffs, as the ZRP has done, or some other such irrational behaviour,” said Guvamombe.
“We do not know if The Sunday Mail story exposing the chaos on our game reserves where police officers are implicated in the deaths of dozens of elephants contained inaccuracies. But what we do know is that journalists have an absolute protection of their sources guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as their right to practise their profession unhindered.”
He said ZEF failed to understand how an organisation sworn to uphold the Constitution such as the ZRP could embarrass itself by resorting to such tactics.He said The Sunday Mail editor would have provided the police with leads to apprehend the suspects or secured the ZRP a retraction if inaccuracies in the story were established. “Our colleagues have been charged with ‘publishing false statements prejudicial to the State’ that have the effect of ‘adversely affecting the . . . economic interests of Zimbabwe’”.