The arrest of two Westerners in Zimbabwe last week forced British media organisations to reassess their reporting from the country, with a number getting their journalists out of the country.
Two people were arrested last Thursday – a Briton, and New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak – in the fallout from the elections.
ITV News’s Africa correspondent Martin Geissler, who was reporting from the country at the time, said that the situation changed towards the end of last week with their arrest.
‘Everything ramped up a bit from there. And then I think the BBC pulled out and we pulled out and there was a level of cooperation between newsdesks for security reasons; discussing how and when people were being pulled out, quietly.”
The ITV reporter said the arrests coupled with Zimbabwean war veterans – militants loyal to embattled president Mugabe – taking to the streets, forced news organisations to reassess the safety issues for their people on the ground.
‘It became more than just being able to cover the story adequately,’said Geissler. ‘When these guys are out prowling in mobs in the city centre, it really does step up a level, and that’s when you do have to seriously consider how much you’ll get, and how long you want to stay around.”
Currently, Zimbabwe has a restrictive journalist-accreditation law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which the Committee to Protect Journalists claims was used in an attempt to hamper reporting on the elections. According to the organisation, very few of the 300-plus applicants were given accreditation and journalists were getting into the country on visas. A number of European broadcasters had obtained accreditation and agencies like Reuters, which retains a permanent bureau in Zimbabwe, uses only accredited journalists. But with the majority of Western journalists operating without accreditation, most were forced to keep a low profile since the arrests.
Alec Russell, the Johannesburg bureau chief for the Financial Times said he was keeping a low profile, which was easier for him as a print journalist than broadcasters or photographers.
Contrary to what he considers some ‘rather hysterical’reporting about Zimbabwe, he said it was not as dangerous a place to work from as people may think. ‘It’s not a war zone – it’s not a country under siege. The regime has got so much on its mind. I don’t think journalists are its top priority.”
Released on bail
The FT‘s Russell did admit that the arrest of two men last week sent a ‘slight frisson’through the press core. However, on Friday, the office of the acting attorney general, Bharat Tateo, told the police that there was no case to be heard against the two men and recommended their release. They were released on bail on Tuesday.
But Russell said the arrests did not amount to a major crackdown. ‘If they really wanted to pick up journalists they could have gone to Tsvangirai’s press conference a few days ago and found a hundred journalists – 90 per cent have no accreditation,’he said.