The democratic space in Zimbabwe is shrinking fast. Amnesty International, the EU, and the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network are among those that roundly condemned the arrest on Monday of two key Zimbabwean opposition voices.
Award-winning journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and the leader of Transform Zimbabwe Jacob Ngarivhuma, who were calling for the July 31 anti-government protests, were both taken into custody and charged with “incitement to participate in public violence”.
But these were no ordinary arrests.
Chin’ono videoed the arrival of eight state security agents, who without an arrest warrant smashed glass and forced their way into his home, intimidating his workers and dragging him away in a barrage of threats.
Amnesty International has said the arrests were clearly an effort to intimidate and send a chilling message to journalists, whistle-blowers, and activists. The EU and Amnesty have called for their immediate release.
Chin’ono’s arrest came after he reported on allegations involving the Health Ministry’s $60 million worth of contracts awarded to companies at inflated prices for Covid-19 supplies, including personal protective equipment. His allegations of graft led to the arrest and sacking of Health Minister Obediah Moyo. But he became a greater target after he accused Collins Mnangagwa, the president’s son, of involvement in the alleged fraud. A government official commented: “Journalists are not above the law”.
But no one should be arrested for reporting on allegations of corruption or for calling for peaceful protests.
It becomes increasingly difficult to motivate Western governments to lift their remaining sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe when the rule of law is clearly being undermined.
Mnangagwa has said he supports freedom of expression after the censorship of the Mugabe era, but in reality, his security apparatus has operated with an even heavier hand as the economy and currency has been in free fall, and corruption scandals exposed.
Last month, the government repealed a restrictive Mugabe-era media law, but the actions of the state against journalists have become even more egregious as the crackdown on dissent is underway.
According to Tabani Moyo, head of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, the new media laws in Zimbabwe are equally as bad as those they replaced, as most reforms were thrown out when the bill went before parliament.
UN Human Rights experts have reported a pattern of disappearances and torture by state security agents.
Last month, journalists Frank Chikowore and Samuel Takawire were arrested for allegedly breaking Covid-19 lockdown regulations. But the journalists had just visited three Movement for Democratic Change female youth activists in the hospital who had allegedly been abducted and tortured by security agents.
In a country where the government is increasingly paranoid and intolerant of divergent views, the stage is set for a nasty face-off between security agents, journalists and opposition members.