Felex Share Senior Reporter—
Angry journalists yesterday humiliated Econet Wireless and walked out on the mobile phone operator’s business unit, Steward Bank legal head Mr Tawanda Nyambirai at a Press conference called to clarify Thursday’s raid of a business news agency’s offices. The placard-waving scribes, some of whom had their mouths tied to symbolise violation of Press freedom, demanded an apology from Mr Nyambirai for invading the newsroom of The Source on Thursday, before proceedings could start.
He refused to do so and all hell broke loose when he was about to go into his prepared speech as journalists broke into song and dance in protest.
“Don’t gag the media”, “Say no to corporate bullies”, and “Press Freedom is a Constitutional right” read the messages inscribed on the placards.
Earlier on, the journalists had refused to partake in a prayer that had been requested by a Steward Bank staffer contending that Econet officials, police and Deputy Sheriff officers had not opened with a prayer when they invaded The Source.
Chaos reigned supreme as journalists and Mr Nyambirai clashed openly, with some journalists flying placards in his face and telling him to “Stop It!” in line with a phrase coined by the First Lady Amai Grace Mugabe when she attacked corrupt elements in the country.
A provisional High Court order granted by Justice Joseph Musakwa last week empowered, Econet officials and lawyers, the Deputy Sheriff and security agents to invade The Source’s premises in central Harare, ransacking the online publication’s computers and extracting information from e-mails.
Econet risk officers, instead of the Deputy Sheriff, did most of the searches and in some cases opened e-mails that had nothing to do with their case in a move described by Government and media representatives as a threat to media freedom and freedom of expression as guaranteed under Section 61(1) and (2) of the Constitution.
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 Mr Nyambirai.
The article claimed that Mr Nyambirai pocketed a substantial facilitation fee for brokering the deal.
The other contentious story alleged that Steward Bank was considering swapping residential stands worth $2,1 million to recover funds borrowed by a property mogul Mr Phillip Chiyangwa.
The Source, through their lawyer Mr Chris Mhike, raised constitutional questions and sought to have the matter referred to the Constitutional Court.
Judgment on the application had not yet been delivered.
Yesterday, journalists could be heard shouting: “Nhasi mari yako haishandi Nyambirai” (Your money is of no use today, Nyambirai), and, “How do you feel if your e-mail asking about the facilitation fee is opened.”
Mr Nyambirai tried to explain to the journalists that the documents used in the stories were stolen, but the journalists would have none of it and walked out.
He said: “The information was private and confidential and it related to the private business transactions of the clients of Steward Bank. The banker-client relationship is a relationship in utmost good faith. As much as you have freedom of expression we also have our freedom and privacy.”
One journalist replied: “With the behaviour you exhibited, you are the least qualified person to talk about freedom.”
Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary-general Foster Dongozi said Econet had become arrogant and considered itself so big that it could trample on everyone’s rights.
Mr Mhike said they would wait for their urgent application to have the matter referred to the Constitutional Court.
“I have just indicated to Steward Bank and Econet that we are very open to resolving this squabble in a more amicable fashion,” he said.
“We do respect the court processes that are ongoing at the High Court and hopefully soon at the Constitutional Court, but at the same time, as those developments unravel, there is always room for the parties to discuss and resolve the matter.”
MISA chairman Kumbirai Mafunda said freedom of expression and Press freedom were “the life blood of democracy” and should be respected.