Foreign journalists have resorted to skirting the law and taking risks.
However, guerrilla journalism has its perils as Toby Harnden, The Sunday Telegraph’s chief foreign correspondent, and Julian Simmonds, its photographer, would testify. After sneaking into Harare on holiday visas, the two were arrested at a polling station while covering Zimbabwe’s 2005 elections without accreditation.
The pair had also overstayed their holiday visas. They were thrown into remand prison – places unfit even for animal habitation. Harnden and Simmonds were in a prison cell meant for 25 but crammed with 105 people.
Stringent legislation Luckily, they were acquitted after insisting they were in Zimbabwe for the sole purpose of holidaying. Had they been found guilty, the two would have served a jail term of two years.
To circumvent the stringent legislation, the foreign media houses have also turned to Zimbabwean journalists.
The lure of payments in foreign currency in a country experiencing the world’s highest inflation rate, now of around 1,700 percent, has motivated a largely secretive band of diligent Zimbabwean correspondents, feeding international media houses throughout the world.
However, these local journalists have not been spared the wrath of Mugabe’s hammer either.
Zimbabwean photojournalist Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi, who works for a number of foreign news agencies, is a timely example. He was arrested together with opposition leaders during the recent disturbances in Harare.
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition, was among those severely beaten up by Zimbabwean police when he tried to attend a prayer meeting on 11 March. Mukwazhi was also a victim of the rogue officers.
He says: “When we arrived at the police station we were told to get out of the police vehicle and to join about 10 people who were lying on the ground in the station grounds. We just stood there in utter disbelief.
We were shoved to the ground, handcuffed and the beating started again. I have never experienced so much pain in my life and I honestly thought I was going to die.
“I remember seeing a police officer bringing our smashed camera equipment and dropping it on the floor in the charge office. A woman officer began to take details of our particulars and equipment. I could not talk as I was in so much shock and pain.”
Sell-outs In Zimbabwe, foreign journalists are considered agents of imperialism. Both locally-based and visiting foreign correspondents are viewed as sell-outs. Mukwazhi confirms this obvious point: “As we drove to Machipisa police station, heads down, we were accused of being sell-outs and puppets of the West and also of working together with the political opposition.”
The retributive vengeance of Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF on perceived “sell-outs” is not without precedent.
In fact, folktales about Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle in the ’70s are replete with narratives about how the Zanu PF military wing – Zanla forces – exacted horrendous punishment on villagers suspected of passing on information to the Rhodesian forces.
A slogan in the vernacular, “Pasi nevatengesi”
(Down with sell-outs), during the war, still forms part of Zanu PF’s campaign vocabulary during rallies in post-independent Zimbabwe. The paranoia arising from perceived betrayal, amid a siege mentality, now forms the dominant and collective psyche within Mugabe’s Zanu PF.
Today, the epithet “sell-out” is one ascribed to anyone associated with the foreign media, local private media and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC); the party is accused of receiving funding from the West.
Mugabe views Western powers – Tsvangirai’s alleged paymasters – as pursuing an agenda of “regime change.” And he believes the media is an integral facet in this cause.
Despite his brutal media clampdown, Mugabe has, however, failed to contain one zone – the cyberspace.
Numerous online newspapers with an interest on Zimbabwe, and blogs, have sprouted with carefree frequency.
The online papers – fed by Zimbabwean correspondents – have been able to report unfettered.
However, an overall assessment suggests Mugabe’s heavy-handed treatment of the media has borne some results. The absence of international television news agencies based in Zimbabwe, such as the BBC, has reduced international reportage to mere intermittence.
Without the constant reports and images, Zimbabwe has failed to occupy a permanent place on the international radar. Without free media access, the depressing story of Zimbabwe has now been rendered into a spasmodic narrative.
Conrad Nyamutata is former chief reporter on the Daily News and currently deputy editor of thezimbabwetimes.com