Walking in Zimbabwe’s treacherous media terrain is a reminder of the internationally prescribed safety code that no story is worth dying for. Forced abductions and persecution of journalists for merely informing the public on critical national development issues is on the rise and continues unabated.
Within a year, five journalists have suffered different forms of persecution and the majority have been silenced. Criticism of the status quo is a criminal offence and those found “outside the line” are immediately whipped into line. A journalist may be protected by law, but it is very difficult to escape death and or persecution in Zimbabwe. Only government propagandists are spared in this purge as truthful, objective and balanced reporting is outlawed. Yet despite the hostile operating environment, Zimbabwe’s journalists seem undeterred.
A dark cloud now hangs over this Southern African country with a heavily tainted human rights record, following the abduction of a journalist, pro-democracy activist and leader of Occupy Africa Unity Square Itai Dzamara, on 9 March 2015. Dzamara was kidnapped at a barbershop near his home in the densely populated Glenview 7 community.
Five unidentified men, suspected of being members of the notorious military intelligence, pounced on Dzamara while he was having a haircut, accusing him of stealing an animal before handcuffing him and shoving him into a white Nissan truck with concealed number plates. Most vehicles belonging to the deadly military intelligence in Zimbabwe have no number plates.
An airtime vendor Peter Nyandoro who witnessed the tragedy confirmed: “Five men in glasses and suits jumped out of a white Nissan and intercepted Dzamara. They took Dzamara and started questioning him for a while before whisking him away, saying they were investigating him over stolen cattle.”
His friends suspect it is the work of the security agents and that he is being punished for his criticism of the status quo since his days as editor of the independent newspaper, The Leader.
Dismissing the allegations of cattle theft, Dirk Frey, who has worked with Dzamara, said this was just an excuse, adding that the activist was abducted for his criticism of President Robert Mugabe’s three-decades rule.
“Absolutely no! If they had a case for cattle theft, they could have brought him to court. Here is someone who resides in Harare; where could he have stolen cattle from? My suspicion is that the state agents used the cattle theft as a pretext to justify the abduction,“said Frey.
Dismissing widely held fears that the state might have taken his life, Frey remained optimistic over 100 days after his disappearance, hinting that the state would release him when an opportune time comes. “No, we can’t rush into such conclusions. We are hoping for the better that they will release him one day. They are waiting for an opportune time. If they release him now when everyone is so concerned, how would they explain that?”
The state alleges that the kidnapping of Dzamara was stage-managed by the Movement for Democratic Change.
However, the state denies any involvement in the abduction of the journalist, putting the blame squarely on the Movement for Democratic Change, the main political opposition in the country. The state alleges that the kidnapping of activist Dzamara was stage-managed by the opposition political party in order to gain international sympathy.
The fearless critic of President Robert Mugabe has not been seen since. His family and lawyers for human rights have been unable to establish his whereabouts although a missing persons report was made at Glennorah police station in Harare. There is growing public panic and fear for his life. Hope is fading as each day passes.
Family representative and brother of Itai Dzamara, Patson Dzamara expressed his fear that the regime might have harmed his brother for standing up against the worsening economic and political conditions.
“We don’t know where Itai is. It’s 100 days since his abduction. We are still in the dark. Even though on the surface we fear the worst, we still hold on to hope. We know there is God, who fights for his people. As such we look forward to meeting Itai soon. I implore on all Zimbabweans to keep piling on pressure until Itai is released. We know Itai was abducted for taking a stand over the debilitating economic and political conditions that prevail. As a family we are doing all we can to get to the bottom of this,” said a sorrowful Patson Dzamara.
Activist and friend Elvis Mugari added: “We tried our best to locate him but our efforts were fruitless. Now there are two possibilities; either they killed him, or they are holding him in one of their torture camps. But even if they killed him we still demand his body.”
Exactly three months down the line, the police still claim they have no clue as to Dzamara’s whereabouts. This is despite the fact that High Court Judge David Mungota had ordered the Home Affairs, the state security ministers, the Zimbabwe Republic Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri and the CIO director general Happiton Bonyongwe to find Dzamara, including by advertising on radio and newspapers and to give fortnightly updates to the court.
“Respondents to dispatch a team of detectives to work closely in conjunction with the lawyers for human rights to search for Itai Dzamara at such places as maybe within their jurisdiction and report progress of such search to the registrar of the High Court by 16.00 hours every Friday fortnightly until his whereabouts are determined,” read part of the ruling.
Cornered by the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, during his Hard Talk programme recently, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services, Professor Jonathan Moyo said the journalist and democracy activist might have skipped across the border into Botswana.
However, human rights groups see events unfolding very differently. They believe that this was a well calculated and planned move to stifle criticism of the nonagenarian leader, who is now chair of the Southern African Development Committee and African Union.
Dzamara was arrested and assaulted by riot police several times, and warned to stop his criticism of the country’s leadership.
Zimbabwe-born analyst Dr Rick Mkonza expressed his fear that this might be yet another crackdown on dissent and the media by Mugabe’s government: “It is clear that President Robert Mugabe’s government is not doing enough to ensure that Itai is found. If Mugabe really abducted him it could be to send a message to would-be protesters and critical reporters that government will not tolerate such criticism.”
A Giraffe Hero award-winner, Dzamara is popularly known in Zimbabwe for leading a peaceful campaign against President Mugabe’s government, urging the leader to admit failure and resign. Through social and mainstream media, Dzamara condemned President Mugabe’s years of misrule and plunder. In September last year, he formed the Occupy Africa Unity Square where he urged Zimbabweans from all walks of life to peacefully confront Mugabe.
The journalist was arrested and assaulted by riot police several times. He was warned by the state to stop his criticism of the country’s leadership. At a press conference in December last year, Dzamara hinted that he feared for his life, for unknown people were always after him.
The abduction of journalists in Zimbabwe and the world over has devastating effects on the families of the victims. Today, Dzamara’s family are exposed to trauma as they wait desperately for his safe return. His wife Sheffra Dzamara, son Nokutenda and daughter Nenyasha remain exposed to fear and uncertainty as they wait desperately for their father, their guardian and mentor.
Sheffra has called on the police and human rights lawyers to do what ever possible to bring her husband home unharmed. “I dont know where he is. I do not know what they are doing to him. I want them to release him unharmed and alive,” said heartbroken Sheffra.
The crime of abduction is a very serious violation of human rights under international law. It violates the dignity of a person, subjects him to potential assault, torture and threatens their very life. It punishes the family and puts children and spouses under serious psychological trauma. They live in fear and uncertainty.
Critics blame the government of President Mugabe of complacency and downplaying the matter. Amnesty International regional director Deprose Muchena expressed concern at the continued disappearance of Dzamara and advised that the state security forces must act in order to avoid accusations of playing a role in the abduction of the activist.
“The enforced disappearance of a known government critic without a trace is a concern in the country with a history of violence targeting political opponents. The best way for Zimbabwe’s security agents to allay fears that they were not complicit in Itai Dzamara’s disappearance would be to take seriously their responsibility to establish his whereabouts and ensure his safe return,” said Muchena.
The enforced disappearance of a known government critic without a trace is a concern in the country with a history of violence targeting political opponents.
In the declaration of rights all forms of enforced disappearance(A/RES/47/133), the UN General Assembly emphasises that enforced disappearance undermines the deepest values of any society committed to respect for the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms and that the systematic practice of such acts is of the nature of a crime against humanity. Under such circumstances, the state is accountable because it has a duty under domestic and international law to protect human life and to conduct an effective investigation aimed at clarifying the whereabouts of the missing person.
This is an outright violation of Article 18 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which states that the family shall be the natural unit and basis of society and shall be protected by the state, which shall take care of its physical and natural health.
Dzamara is not the only media practitioner or citizen to have been abducted for exercising his professional duty. Civil servant Rashiwe Guzha disappeared in the early 1980s and has not been seen since. She is believed to have been killed by the central intelligence agents for revealing state secrets. A former abductee and photojournalist, Andrison Manyere, chronicles how he was kidnapped by state security agents at sunrise during the bloody 2008 presidential runoff in Norton.
“I could have died. Now I have a weak memory,” he said with a faint grin. “About seven men, armed with AK47 guns, came to Norton at around 5pm in the evening. I was handcuffed at gunpoint and shoved in a brand new KB Isuzu silver with no number plates. I was blindfolded with a smelly blanket and thrown between the seats looking down. I was taken to a place that i later learned was Goromonzi torture camp. I was put in a small, dark room. They asked my background and everything about me. They threatened me with death. They asked me about my friend Ndira, whom they had killed. I was given food once a day. The person who gave me food was a prisoner official, who refused to talk to me.”
Manyere alleges his only offence was to give a different picture of the economic and political events unfolding then. He claims he was targeted for extensively covering government policies and actions such as the chaotic land grab operation, Murambambatsvina, and the bloody 2008 presidential runoff where he exposed the Zimbabwean regime in local, regional and international media.
“At the height of the farm invasions when they invaded Bennet’s farm, I took pictures. I also took pictures during operation Murambatsvina and the bloody 2008 elections. As a freelance journalist I had to stand up for the voiceless. During the 27 June presidential run off, I had to cover what was happening - the beatings and killings that took place. I took pictures of people who were brutalised in Chiweshe, Gutu and Mtoko,” Manyere said.
Veteran journalist and economic justice activist Farai Maguwu, speaking from his Mutare base, chronicles how the state security agents pounced on him in 2008 for merely exposing the massive plunder of diamonds by the military and politicians in Mugabe’s government in Manicaland.
“When security agents came to my house I escaped through the window. They camped in my house for six days, arrested my cousin and beat him. My nephew was held hostage at home and later beaten when he tried to escape. In police custody I got very ill and was denied medication. I was then illegally taken out of remand prison at night by secret squad to Matapi torture camp. I was saved from torture by the timely intervention of my lawyers whom I had alerted,” said Maguwu.
Philemon Jambaya, a freelance journalist who was heavily assaulted by municipal police in Chitungwiza for covering a meeting during an access to information protest by residents on World Press Freedom Day in May this year, expressed fear at the risk associated with his work but promised to soldier on: “No doubt, journalism in Zimbabwe is a risky job but since this is my profession I will never surrender.”
Zimbabwe is the only country in Southern Africa with the most repressive and draconian colonial media legislation still in place. The Public Order and Security Act (POSA) provides for the prosecution of journalists for reporting unfavourably in a way considered a threat to national security. According to Press Without Borders’ 2014 report, Zimbabwe is ranked 135 out of the 180 countries assessed in terms of press freedom.
But section 62 of the Zimbabwean constitution guarantees press freedom. The African Union Chapter on People and Human Rights provides for the freedom of expression and the press. The Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) has since described the persecution of reporters as backward and retrogressive.