One of the major criticisms we get as Zimbabwean journalists is that we do not do enough to cover the big stories and major on the minors, a fair criticism but that sometimes is bereft of context.

This is not a defence of Zimbabwean journalism, as there are some corrupt, greedy, nepotistic and know-it-all louts among us, while it is also true that there are some hard working and honest reporters who are serving the profession well.

I guess this is true for every profession.

One thing that is barely mentioned, or at best is said in passing is self censorship: The bane of local journalism.

Often when one mentions self-censorship in Zimbabwean journalism what most people have in mind is State media reporters, who sometimes — against their consciences — have to sing the praises of Zanu PF and the government.

But self-censorship is rife across the media fraternity and it could even be as bad if not worse in the private media.

Let me tell you my story.

In 2007, we invited Jabulani Sibanda, then leader of the National War Veterans’ Association, to the Bulawayo Press Club, as he was quite a prominent political player then.

I stood up to ask the question that everyone wanted to ask, but few were brave enough, I think.

I asked where he was trained, when and where he was deployed before the liberation struggle.

As I asked the question I saw several people from the security establishment jotting ferociously and fear kicked in.

Sibanda asked who I was and requested me to repeat the question.

I told him, adding that I worked for a State media publication, but sensing danger I refused to ask the question again and immediately left the room.

The following day, three unfriendly characters raided the Sunday News in search of me, but I was nowhere to be found as I was at the National University of Science and Technology, where I was completing my studies.

The editor, the late Paul Mambo, managed to calm them down, but he told me some threats had been issued and that I was lucky they had not caught up with me the previous night.

For the next few days, I noticed there was always a car parked in front of my home. I do not know whether I was being paranoid, but the fear of God had been drilled into me.

A few years later, I moved to The Standard and within a few months the publication and I had been sued for close to US$50 million after publishing stories on three prominent politicians.

You always know at the back of your mind that the lawsuits will not be pursued, but for a young reporter it is enough to frighten you and lead you to looking for “safe stories”.

In 2011 I was arrested after I had written a story on the woes that befell Green Card medical aid, which was run by Munyaradzi Kereke, the jailed former legislator.

My story was based on leaked documents from the company and the police told me that if I do not reveal my source, I would be charged with either criminal defamation or theft.

In the end, they charged Nevanji Madanhire, the then editor of The Standard and myself on both charges.

A friend, who had some interactions with the investigating officer, told of the cop’s frustrations, as he confided that there was really no case, but some higher ups wanted us prosecuted.

That night I slept in the same cell with banker Nicholas Vingirai at Rhodesville Police Station and if I recall well, he had been allowed to bring in his own blankets while we had to make do with the prison rags.

It was a long night.

We were released the following day and a day later, police officers arrived at our offices demanding to lock us up on fresh criminal defamation charges.

This time the complainant was Kembo Mohadi, now Vice-President.

I fled to Bulawayo and for the first time in my life I thought of crossing the border to South Africa, I could not continue to live my life like this; I loved journalism but this could not go on.

A friend persuaded me to stay the course and return to Harare to see the police, which I did.
This time Madanhire and I were not charged, but we spent the whole day at the scary Law and Order section of Harare Central Police Station.

Meanwhile, our case against Kereke had moved to the Constitutional Court where we challenged the constitutionality of criminal defamation laws.

During this time I received a scholarship to go and study in the United Kingdom.

But I spent many sleepless nights wondering what would happen if the police blocked me from leaving the country because I had a pending case.

My future and my academic and professional prospects were all at stake and I asked myself if all this was worth it.

In 2014, the courts struck down criminal defamation laws from the country’s statutes, but not before the Justice minister, now President Emmerson Mnangagwa, argued that such a law was justifiable in a democratic country.

In 2016, police came knocking at my door once again, this time I was charged for publishing falsehoods together with Xolisani Ncube, the reporter who had written the story.

We handed ourselves over to the police the following morning after a long sleepless night.

For some reason, the police decided to take us to court that same day, but on our way to Harare Magistrates’ Courts, they changed their minds and caged us for the night.

My hunch, without evidence is that a higher up had called and ordered that we spend the night as guests of the State.

Imagine what damage that does to your mind, when you are thinking you are about to be freed and the next moment you are spending the night in stinky police cells.

I returned to the Constitutional Court for the third time in my life and the State responded by dropping all charges.

This was cold comfort because we had spent a night in custody, spent several hundreds of dollars attending court and spent countless hours wondering what would happen to us.

I am trying to show how, at least for me, self-censorship crept in and what leads others to opt for easy and safe stories, because no one would want to go through half my experience.

For example, people have been arrested for saying Mnangagwa has failed, so as a journalist, you recoil and instead write: “Mnangagwa’s administration has failed”.

The difference is quite subtle, but that is the thin line that could save you from going to prison.

With self-censorship, you begin to be afraid of even your own thoughts, as you fear what could happen to you if you were to express yourself.

One of the reasons why I started writing this column was that writing is therapeutic and allows me to express myself, but again a cloud of fear is enveloping us, as this regime is as bad as the last in terms of instilling fear, never mind their rhetoric.

I repeat, this is not a defence of Zimbabwean journalism, but for us to enjoy quality reportage, there is need for the government to implement reforms that entrench freedom of the media and of expression, not the piecemeal reform path that the authorities are on.

Nobody wants to be mediocre, but we are forced into our shells by Stone Age laws and an administration that wants to control what we think and say.

 Nqaba Matshazi is AMH’s head of digital. He writes in his personal capacity. Feedback: nmatshazi@alphamedia.co.zw. Twitter: @nqabamatshazi