Imprisonment and Torture 0f Journalists in Zimbabwe

By Chavunduka, Mark G. | Nieman Reports, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Imprisonment and Torture 0f Journalists in Zimbabwe


Chavunduka, Mark G., Nieman Reports


Eventually the courts ruled the law that jailed them was unconstitutional.

Those of us who are journalists in Zimbabwe have witnessed under President Robert Mugabe's 20-year rule a situation in which the government has become increasingly hostile to and intolerant of the independent press. Against newspapers and journalists whom it regards as troublesome, both legal and extra-legal measures have been taken.

Not so long ago I became one of the government's targets. Personally and professionally, I bear the scars of this encounter.

In January 1999, The Standard published an article giving details of an attempted coup against Mugabe's government. As editor of this newspaper, I insisted that we do all of the necessary checks before publishing this story. To do this, we held the article for an entire week to allow the government an opportunity to respond before we went to print. Despite many assurances that we would receive an official response, we heard nothing and went ahead and published the story.

Two days after the article was published, I was arrested illegally by Zimbabwe's military. I was held and brutally tortured for nine days at military establishments in the country. My chief writer, Ray Choto, was also arrested and beaten. Throughout my illegal detention, my captors emphasized that they did not dispute the substance of the article. What they wanted us to tell them were the names of our sources in the military. Not unlike the disgruntlement that is so evident in civilian society, many in the military were upset at how various matters of state were being handled. During our detention, it became clear to us that the country's leaders were desperate to identify and plug what they said were increasing leaks to members of the independent press from within the military and intelligence communities.

Our torture was barbaric. It included having live electric wires applied to all parts of our naked bodies and being suffocated underwater in a process we later learned has a name within the military, "submarine." Still, we did not reveal our sources, and to this day they remain protected despite an extensive search by the government within the army.

Our newspaper obtained court orders to try to win our release. And as word of our situation reached journalists and organizations throughout the world, international pressure was applied. This and, I believe, the realization that no information would be forthcoming from us, meant that after nine days of torture by the military, we were handed over to the civilian police. Subsequently, we appeared in court on charges of "publishing information likely to cause public alarm and despondency."

In Zimbabwe, several laws impinge on what the press can do. Many of these laws date back to the 1960's and were promulgated to stern growing political instability. In its election manifestos issued in 1979, the present government tried to remove these laws from the statute books. However, they remained in effect and have been used by this same government that once sought to repeal them.

Among these laws are the Official Secrets Act, the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament Act, the Prisons Act, the Defense Act, the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act, and the most dreaded, notorious and all-embracing law, the Law and Order Maintenance Act. It is this final piece of legislation that was used to charge Choto and me.

We decided to challenge the constitutionality of the section of that law under which we were charged. That section said that "publishing information likely to cause public alarm and despondency" was a criminal offense, regardless of whether the published information was correct or not. …

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