CJFE urges Zimbabwean government to cease harassment of media

Friday, February 12, 1999

His Excellency Robert Mugabe
Office of the President
Causeway, Harare
Fax: +263 4 708 557

12 February 1999

Your Excellency,

On behalf of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), I am writing to express our concern regarding the increasingly heavy-handed tactics used against the private press in Zimbabwe as of late. The arrests of journalists, coupled with your personal threats against the media and your call to implement restrictions, are very disturbing. As a non-profit, non-governmental organization devoted to fighting for freedom of expression worldwide, CJFE believes the plight of journalists in Zimbabwe is growing desperate.

In perhaps the most widely known case, editor Mark Chavunduka and reporter Ray Choto, both of the "Standard," were illegally arrested and severely beaten after alleging a coup plot in a 10 January story. Chavunduka was arrested on 12 January, while Choto was detained some seven days later. Both were charged under the Law and Order Maintenance Act of 1960, for disseminating false news; if convicted, the men face a possible prison term of up to seven years.

While in custody, both were savagely tortured, a fact that was confirmed by a physician whose report was published in full in the "Financial Gazette." Choto even endured numerous electrocutions to his genitalia. The "Standard" is now working to press separate contempt of court charges against several government officials, a move which appears to be gaining broad support among the Zimbabwean legal community.

The Law and Order Maintenance Act was also used as justification in order to detain four independent journalists from the weekly "Zimbabwe Mirror" newspaper in connection with a story. Originally published on 30 October 1998, the offending article told of a Zimbabwean family who received only the head of their son for burial after he was killed in a military action in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). While the charges against editor Fernando Gonclaves and former editor Ferayi Mungazi were dropped, reporter Grace Kwinjeh and chief editor Ibbo Mandaza were found in violation of Article 50 (2a) of the Law and Order Maintenance Act and released on US$135 bail until their case commences on 1 March 1999. In the interim, they must report to police once a week.

Recent public statements made by Your Excellency during the state-of-the-nation address, as well as those expressed by the Vice-President, Simon Muzenda, laid bare the threat of continued action against members of the private media who dare to exercise their rights to freely write the truth as they see it. Questioning journalists' patriotism for their work while seemingly exonerating the military and police is reprehensible.

We are also concerned about your government's plans to introduce stringent measures to regulate the private media, announced on 4 February by Minister of Information Chen Chimutengwende. The proposed measures include restricting the media sector to local investors, forbidding donors to put funds into private media, and the introduction of a legal framework within which they should operate.

On behalf of CJFE, I implore you to rescind your order to see that all charges against these journalists are dropped, and take all steps to ensure that the private media is allowed to pursue its work unhindered.

Yours sincerely,
Wayne Sharpe
Executive Director

Please feel free to copy this letter or write your own based on this information.