Econet goes for broke and trumples on civil liberties

MEDIA and human rights groups have criticised Econet Wireless and its financial services unit, Steward Bank, for what they described as “bully-boy and draconian behaviour” towards the press.

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This was after police and lawyers from the telecoms behemoth raided the offices of online news agency The Source on Thursday in a dispute over stories published earlier this year.

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Econet Wireless and its Steward Bank business have criticised stories published by The Source in February and March.

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The companies have not disputed the content of the stories but say the agency used internal documents without their authority.

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In one of the articles, Econet was reported to have bailed out the cash-strapped government with a $30 million loan while the facilitator of the deal, Tawanda Nyambirayi, was given over $250 000 as a token of appreciation.

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In the other story, the Source reported that flamboyant businessman Philip Chiyangwa was failing to repay a loan secured from Steward Bank.

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Econet lawyers, accompanied by the sheriff department and technology experts, sifted through staff communications and retrieved emails and documents. The police stood watch throughout the proceedings.

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Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa) director, Nhlanhla Ngwenya said Econet was abusing its financial muscle to trample on press freedom.

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“This is a sad day for the media,” he said.

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“It’s sad that Econet, a big company which operates with the public and has in its position personal information for millions of Zimbabweans, has decided to demand that The Source reveals its source for a story it authored.

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“This is a breach of the constitutional rights of journalists and, as an advocacy group, we are disturbed.”

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Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) secretary-general, Foster Dongozi said Econet was “urinating” on Journalists’ rights and the move should be condemned.

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“This company is urinating on us as journalists and abusing its financial muscle at the expense of press freedom. We are worried that this is coming at a time when are about to commemorate Press Freedom Day.

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“We demand full protection of journalists and their sources as is espoused in the constitution,” Dongozi said.

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An Econet Wireless staff member goes through information on a laptop belonging to The Source office.

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A High Court judge on March 16 granted Econet and Steward an order to search the premises and computers of the agency for information belonging to the firms and “to seize and place such information in the custody of the Registrar” of the court.

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The Source and its reporters challenged the action and sought to have the case referred to the Constitutional Court (Concourt). They argued the order violated constitutional rights of freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

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The High Court has not yet ruled on the request by The Source for referral to the southern African nation’s highest court.

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Lawyer Chris Mhike (L) representing The source talks to Tinashe  Fred Zindi the lawyer representing Econet Wireless.

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The lawyers and technology experts combed through emails for more than an hour and downloaded them onto a memory stick.

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During the raid, Chris Mhike, a lawyer representing the news agency and Tinashe Zindi, Econet’s lawyer had bitter arguments over some of the information detectives who were carrying out the search were reading.

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“These are personal emails which have nothing to do with Steward Bank or Econet. It is just unfair that you are reading even emails between me and my client.

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Lawyer Chris Mhike (L) argues his point in the presence of a police officer and a sheriff.

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“May you please stop doing that,” Mhike told the police detective who was perusing through emails of The Source’s news editor, Nelson Bwanya.

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The Source Editor-in -chief Nelson Bwanya (R)  argues his point in the presence of Econet Wireless staff lawyers  and Kimbirai Mafunda of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human rights at the agency's office.

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The Source was created by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and the European Journalism Centre in 2013, with core funding from the Dutch government.

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A member of staff from the deputy sheriff's office going through some papers  in the presence of a police officer in The Source office.

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It is now independent of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, but shares offices with Reuters in Harare. Reuters and the Thomson Reuters Foundation are both part of global information company Thomson Reuters.