Editorial Comment: Deliberate misrepresentation,  application of lockdown rules

Are some police officers deliberately misinterpreting application of the lockdown rules or they are intent on ensuring that they undermine the media as it performs its critical role of keeping Zimbabweans well-informed about what is happening at this critical juncture?

The Government identified the media as one of the critical sectors that is required to report for duty during the lockdown period.

The rationale is to ensure Zimbabweans are kept informed about the human toll that the novel Coronavirus Infectious Disease-19 (Covid-19) is claiming. More importantly, the media is meant to inform citizens about the measures the Government is taking in order to combat the spread of Covid-19. These include campaigns to educate the public about such things as how to stay safe, stay at home, self-isolate, social distancing and constantly washing of hands in addition to use of sanitisers and masks.

This move was supported by the Zimbabwe Media Commission when on March 30, 2020 it issued a statement advising that media practitioners could continue to use their 2019 Accreditation Cards in pursuit of their work while awaiting issuance of the 2020 Press cards.

The ZMC said it had anticipated issuing Accreditation Cards on  April 1, 2020, but this had been suspended because of the current nation-wide lockdown.

However, in the past two weeks several journalists have been prevented from conducting their work by some police officers, who are apparently unaware of both the Government’s exemption of the media and the ZMC statement on the continued use of the 2019 Press Cards by practising journalists.

All the journalists who have been inconvenienced by the stubbornness, arrogance or ignorance of police officers carry with them letters from their employers confirming they are on official duty.

The conduct of the police began with overzealous officers confiscating produce from farmers delivering their vegetables to the market in Mutare. All it required was a call to their superiors or the Head Office in Harare for clarification or how to deal with situations of that nature.

President Mnangagwa rebuked the Mutare police after this incident. In a televised address to the nation, President Mnangagwa said it was critical that the economy is allowed to function during the period of the lockdown, adding: “Food supply should be guaranteed with minimum shocks or disruptions. Farmers must continue to produce for our nation, even under conditions of lockdown. Farmers and traders alike must equally continue to deliver produce to markets including those markets that supply our cities, towns and growth points.

“To that end, I direct our security arms to ensure a pathway for food supply. All agricultural activity must remain undisturbed throughout the period of lockdown. All our producers must continue to feed the nation with minimum hassles.”

Unfortunately, the Government is now having to compensate the farmers who suffered losses due to the errant conduct of the Mutare police officers. But could the police be pursuing their own agenda? Why is there a general impression that Police General Head Quarters have apparently not sent out a circular to all their stations advising them of what to do or who is exempted during the lockdown period?

Otherwise how does one explain the conduct of officers who appear to operate on their own terms and in complete defiance of the circular/order, if one was issued? Or could we be witnessing cases of rogue (G40) elements, determined to soil the reputation of the Zimbabwe Republic Police?

It would be helpful for the police to clarify this matter once and for all. In cases where media practitioners have tried to capture the wayward conduct of the police, the officers even had the audacity — in two particular incidents — to try and confiscate equipment from the media personnel. 

The unfortunate impression is that someone is pursuing a certain agenda. How is it, that even against the backdrop of journalists facing harassment from police officers, the police hierarchy has not issued a public statement correcting or reprimanding their wayward officers?

Recently, when the President realised one of his ministers had erred, he promptly came out clearly stating the position of the Government, thus laying the matter to rest.

With the transition to the new Dispensation, there was always the belief that the police would transform from their previous role during which they were largely viewed as “anti-people”, to something that conforms to the Police Service Charter. It was this “anti-people” perception that led to the public booing of the former Commissioner-General of Police, Augustine Chihuri, at the National Sports Stadium during the inauguration of President Mnangagwa in November 2017. 

So far there are as many as 10 documented cases of police acting against journalists going about their lawful business. There have also been reports of harassment of newspaper vendors by police. Clearly, the police — as exhibited by the conduct of their officers — do not want the public to be informed about the Government’s decisions and measures against Covid-19. Just whose agenda could they be serving?

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