Felex Share Senior Reporter—
Econet Wireless yesterday trampled on media freedom when it raided Reuters affiliated business news agency, The Source, in a bid to retrieve documents used to write stories on the operations of its subsidiary, Steward Bank. The move came nearly a month before Zimbabwe joins other nations in celebrating World Press Freedom Day, which falls on May 3.
Econet’s action drew outrage from Government and media representatives who wondered how an organisation also involved in the business of disseminating information through its mobile phone business would act in that way.
Acting on a provisional High Court order granted by Justice Joseph Musakwa last week, Econet officials and lawyers, the Deputy Sheriff and security agents invaded The Source’s premises in central Harare and ransacked the online publication’s computers, extracting information from emails.
Interestingly, the Deputy Sheriff played second fiddle as Econet risk officers did most of the searches, in some cases going through emails that had nothing to do with their case.
Government said the incursion was a threat to media freedom and freedom of expression as guaranteed under Section 61(1) and (2) of the Constitution.
Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo condemned the raid, saying the constitutionality of the provisional order was liable to challenge.
“I am outraged by what we hear happened, especially allegations that Econet officials were roaming, abusing the cover of the Deputy Sherriff to run riot at The Source, ransacking computer hardware and software and anything and everything they could get their hands on,” he said.
“That cannot be right. It is one thing to get a court order in your favour against a media house and quite another thing to become a law unto yourself in the enforcement of that order.”
He added: “Now we know that some third parties which have been making a lot of noise about media freedom are themselves enemies of that freedom.”
Justice Musakwa ordered The Source, an affiliate of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, to “delete and expunge” two articles the online publication recently published about Econet and its banking unit, Steward Bank.
One of the articles titled “Debt-distressed Zimbabwe moves to reschedule domestic debt” claimed that Government had borrowed $30 million from Econet, disbursed through Steward Bank, in a deal brokered by former Econet chairman Mr Tawanda Nyambirai.
The article claimed that Mr Nyambirai pocketed a substantial facilitation fee for brokering the deal, for which the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe allegedly acted as the guarantor.
The other contentious story titled “Steward Bank seeks to settle $2,1 million in Chiyangwa loan” alleged that Steward Bank was considering swapping residential stands worth $2,1 million to recover funds borrowed by a property firm owned by businessman Mr Phillip Chiyangwa.
The article quoted confidential documents which showed that Pinnacle Property Holdings owed $2 170 763,78, despite surrendering collateral worth $720 000.
Justice Musakwa interdicted the news agency from “publishing contents of emails and internal memoranda or correspondence of a private nature relating to the applicants’ business or that of its customers, consultants or other counter-parties”.
The Source, through Advocate David Ochieng, instructed by Mr Chris Mhike, raised constitutional matters and made an urgent application to the High Court seeking the matter to be referred to the Constitutional Court.
Judgment on the application had not yet been delivered.
Econet Wireless lawyer Mr Tinashe Zindi of Mtetwa and Nyambirai Legal Practitiioners yesterday refused to comment, saying the matter was sub-judice.
Mr Mhike said the “invasion” violated the fundamental right of freedom of expression enshrined in the country’s statutes.
He said a number of correspondences and documents which pertain to communications between The Source and its sources had been seized.
“The information (they seized) is now with the Registrar of the High Court and we await the confirmation of the provisional order,” Mr Mhike said.
“While they were conducting the search, we were concerned with the access they had, which we believe had nothing to do with the order. Details of the complaint will be presented to the High Court for a proper determination by the judges as to whether or not they were acting in terms of the law.”
Mr Mhike said the raid had been conducted while they were waiting for a response to their urgent Constitutional Court application.
Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary- general Foster Dongozi said the development was clear “trampling” on the rights of journalists.
He said: “This is a very sad day for democracy, freedom of expression, for access to information particularly given the fact that we are only a month and some days before we commemorate World Press Freedom Day.
“What is particularly shocking is that the courts have reserved judgment on the matter, and we are all totally surprised by the developments in which the organisation has harnessed the powers of the law to trample on the rights of journalists and Press freedom.”
Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe chairperson Kumbirai Mafunda said: “We believe journalists are protected from revealing their sources. We do not support such actions of raiding media houses in order to stifle freedom of expression and freedom of the media.”