Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
June 24, 2002
Independent journalists feeling Zimbabwe government's wrath

Bornwell Chakaodza thinks the government of Zimbabwe has it out for him. He has been editor of the Zimbabwe Standard for six weeks. The police have arrested him five times already.

Chakaodza, 49, was first hauled in after his weekly wrote that the government imported water cannons to control Zimbabwe's increasingly restless townships. The story was true - the paper even had photos - but the government denied it.

Then he wrote about his night in Harare's putrid jail, with 24 people packed in a cell designed for six. That merited another arrest, this time for unlawfully disclosing police activities.

Chakaodza is hardly alone. President Robert Mugabe's government has arrested dozens of independent journalists, lawyers and opposition political figures since it won a March election that was widely condemned by the West as rigged.

"The government is so arrogant it's unbelievable," said Chakaodza, who believes he has been arrested more than other journalists because he once was an ally - he used to edit the government daily, the Herald. "They see themselves as the masters rather than the servants of the people."

Mugabe, ruler of this former British colony in southern Africa for 22 years since independence, is systematically consolidating power after his disputed election victory. Although Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party have run a virtual one-party state since he was first elected in 1980, and members still call each other "comrade," his regime long tolerated an independent press and judiciary.

But the government's actions and rhetoric have been radicalized by the growth of a serious political opposition in the last two years. "Let's embrace Communism," stated a headline in the Herald this month.

Last year the printing plant of the Daily News, which supports the opposition, was bombed. No one was arrested.

The leaders of Zimbabwe's bar association, which has criticized Mugabe for ignoring court rulings and intimidating judges into retirement, were charged this month with plotting to overthrow the government. The charges were based on two letters the lawyers say are crude fabrications.

"As lawyers, there was no way we could keep quiet in the face of the deterioration of the rule of law," said Sternford Moyo, president of the Zimbabwe Law Society. He faces 20 years in prison under security laws.

The government denies its aim is repression.

"There is no campaign of any sort against the opposition, journalists or lawyers," police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena said recently. "This is about law and order."

Andrew Meldrum, an American correspondent based in Zimbabwe, last week became the first journalist to go to trial under tough new media laws.

Meldrum, 50, who has lived in Zimbabwe for two decades and writes for the British Guardian, was charged with publishing "falsehoods" after filing a story alleging Mugabe supporters had beheaded a woman. He faces two years in jail.

The story, inspired by an account in the independent Daily News, was wrong - it was based upon the unverified claims of the woman's husband. The Daily News, whose reporter was also charged, published a retraction.

Mugabe accuses some foreign journalists and sections of the private media of pursuing a hate campaign against his party on behalf of British or "imperialist" interests.

While the independent media often do appear to be eager to publish disparaging accounts of the government, the same could be said about the government news outlets, which frequently publish unverified attacks on the opposition.

Chakaodza, a soft-spoken man, has not exactly pursued the career of a crusading journalist. He has spent most of his professional life as a government media researcher, and he was the government's director of information for five years.

In 1997, he became editor of the Herald. As the opposition gained strength before parliamentary elections in 2000, Chakaodza said he was instructed to make every effort to promote ZANU-PF and to smear the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

"I was instructed that I had to rubbish the MDC all the way and only say good things about ZANU-PF," he said.

He was good at his job. Before the election, the Herald was a one-sided propaganda organ, useful mostly as an outlet for official government pronouncements. Chakaodza said he agonized about whether to stay within the system or try to change it from the outside.

"There was a belief that things would change after the parliamentary elections. That's how I justified staying, even while doing things against my tradition and ethics of my profession," he said.

After the elections, the Herald did indeed change - its reporting became more balanced and its stories at least mentioned alternative views. Circulation improved. "I felt I had to produce a real newspaper," Chakaodza said.

But his superiors did not appreciate his attempt at redemption. Less than two months after the elections, Information Minister Jonathan Moyo sacked him summarily.

On May 1, Chakaodza was named editor of the Standard. He knew he would be attacked by the Information Ministry, which has been Mugabe's most strident supporter.

"I think they are afraid of me. They know what I'm capable of doing, and they know I know the things in the system that would embarrass them," he said.

His resilience in the face of the government's attacks has surprised some of his staff, but not Chakaodza.

"I was under no illusions about what would happen to us after the passing of the media act. It was clearly aimed at the independent media. But this is the job we have to do, and if in the process you get arrested and jailed, so be it."

He thinks the government's campaign has strengthened the opposition. "They expect the harassment to have a chilling effect, but it has had the contrary effect. It has strengthened our resolve." home page   
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