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Press Freedom In Zimbabwe A Long Way Off

Press Freedom In Zimbabwe A Long Way Off

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Robert Mugabe’s resignation as President of Zimbabwe on 21 November provoked celebrations in the streets of Harare and across the country. After 37 years of dictatorial rule, the people of Zimbabwe are hoping that new leadership will be the impetus for change. But what does Mugabe’s resignation mean for press freedom in a country that has known rampant harassment and arrests of journalists?

By Colette Davidson

Television screens across the globe broadcasted the images of the people of Harare last week – dancing, singing and cheering at the news that longtime Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe had resigned. And when speaker Jacob Mudenda announced that Mugabe was finally stepping down, a resounding jubilation echoed across Zimbabwe’s parliament.

But for many working in the media in Zimbabwe, the celebrations haven’t started just yet. In a press freedom climate that the Committee to Protect Journalists describes as “dismal,” many are skeptical that Mugabe’s ouster will bring automatic change.

Vincent Kahiya has worked as a journalist, editor and media manager in Zimbabwe for 20 years and says the country has a “press freedom deficit” that isn’t going to improve anytime soon.

“I think it’s important for the media in Zimbabwe to understand the thinking of the ruling party,” says Kahiya, who now works as a media development consultant and is a Steering Committee member of WAN-IFRA’s Women in News (WIN) programme. “Mugabe has left but the incoming president is from the same Zanu-PF party and the collective psyche of the party doesn’t believe in giving freedoms.”

The Zanu-PF party has been ruling Zimbabwe since 1980, with the now 93 year-old Mugabe as its leader. On 19 November, the party sacked Mugabe after he was placed under house arrest by the Zimbabwe National Army, and replaced him with former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Narrowly avoiding impeachment hearings, Mugabe formally resigned as president on 21 November.

What Mugabe’s resignation means for the country’s press freedom landscape remains to be seen, but in some ways, it can’t get much worse. According to Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator, the Zimbabwean media has not been free for decades. Independent watchdog organization Freedom House states Zimbabwe’s press freedom status as “not free,” while Reporters Without Borders ranked it 128 out of 180 countries – down four points from 124 in 2016 – in terms of press freedom in 2017.

Despite attempts to free the press – including an amendment to the constitution in 2013 – little change has been seen on the ground. Journalists are often targets for harassment, arrest, intimidation, surveillance or physical attacks, while a dire economic environment has caused job losses in the media sector. A raft of civil defamation lawsuits against the media has led to a culture of self-censorship.

Most recently, American journalist Martha O’Donovan from Magamba TV was released on bail in early November after bring arrested for calling Mugabe “a selfish and sick man” in a tweet that included an image of Mugabe in a hospital bed. And Kenneth Nyangani, a reporter from NewsDay, is facing October charges of criminal nuisance for reporting that former First Lady Grace Mugabe had donated used clothing including underwear to supporters of the ruling Zanu-PF party. 

“One can only hope that the new government will see that it needs to send the right signal to the people of Zimbabwe and elsewhere as it looks to attract investment and aid,” says Quintal. “It should therefore move swiftly to reform the country's media laws and regulatory environment, and ensure that the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation becomes a public broadcaster and not the state broadcaster of old.”

Kahiya says that he’s happy that there’s a change in guard but is not especially hopeful that freedoms will be respected.

“There’s still quite a lot to be done by removing institutions that take away freedoms,” says Kahiya. “We have to keep fighting.”


Andrew Heslop's picture

Andrew Heslop


2017-11-27 15:53

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