Beware the ides of March is now a cliché – but not as such in the Zimbabwean context where journalists are bearing the brunt in an attempt to tell the Zimbabwean story on how it is, like the rest of the world, grappling with the Covid-19 crisis.
At the time of penning this article, an all-time high number of violations on media freedoms stood at 15 cases ranging from attacks, harassment, imprisonment and assault of journalists and distributors of media content in Zimbabwe.
The journalists were accused of conducting their lawful professional duties without valid journalism accreditation cards issued by the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC).
The ZMC is still to issue the requisite 2020 accreditation cards following the expiry of the 2019 press cards.
It is against that background that journalists were given the go-ahead to operate until the new and valid cards are duly issued.
Ironically, by arresting and harassing journalists that are operating without the valid 2020 cards, the police are not only violating the right to media freedom but the government and ZMC’s directive that the media, as an essential service, should be allowed to conduct its operations without hindrance until the issuance of the valid 2020 cards.
The attacks and arrests of journalists on the basis that they are not accredited for 2020 are widespread, across the country, which points to coordination rather than sporadic acts of terror on the media.
For a moment, it seemed the government had two pandemics at hand which struck the country at once, namely Covid-19 and the media.
Though the government seemed more clueless on what it was fighting pertaining to the former, it is oiled and ruthless on the latter. It is from that vintage point that organisations like the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe took the Commissioner-General of Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) to court seeking an interdict to stop the police, uniformed services and other officers enforcing the lockdown regulations from interfering with the journalists and downstream operations of the media.
The violations continued unmitigated, despite the fact that the government categorised the media as an essential service, among other critical sectors, whose operations should not be restricted during the lockdown period given the important role it plays in advancing the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights and freedoms. These same freedoms are guaranteed under section 61 of the constitution which caters for media freedom and freedom of expression.
The assaults only stopped after Zimbabwe High Court judge Justice Manzunzu on April 20 ordered the police and other law enforcement agencies charged with enforcing the Covid-19 lockdown not to arrest, detain or interfere “in any unnecessary way” with the work of journalists.
“Police officers and all other law enforcement agencies charged with the duty to implement the coronavirus-related lockdown are interdicted from arresting, detaining or interfering in any unnecessary way with the work of the 2nd applicant (Makufa) and members of 1st applicant (MISA Zimbabwe) purely on the basis that their press cards issued in 2019 have expired,” read the order.
It is in this context that the journalists and the media in Zimbabwe continue to report in the line of fire in mediating the Covid-19 pandemic, with a marooning police force in hot pursuit on one hand and facing the risk of contaminating the deadly pandemic as they are poorly equipped to access public spaces, without protective wear and support equipment.
Beyond the internal challenges that journalism faces today, in terms of changing business models, the changing patterns of news consumption, cuts in newsgathering budgets and pressures of breaking accurate, authentic and balanced stories, journalists in Zimbabwe face the daily threat of being arrested, attacked, detained or harassed on one hand and the high risk of contracting the deadly virus as they are poorly equipped to cover the story, on the other. In essence, journalists are in the line of fire as they report on Covid-19.
Moyo is the Misa-Zimbabwe national director; chairperson of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe and a national governing council member of IFEX, a global network promoting freedom of expression.