The harrowing experience of being a journalist in Zimbabwe

HARARE – Jeffrey Moyo completed a mass communication diploma at the once revered Harare Polytechnic four years ago. His hope was to get a job and become a respected journalist. With a shrunken media market his hopes dimmed and he opted to be a freelance reporter.

Recently Jeffrey and another freelance journalist, Melody Hamutyinei, were arrested during the course of their duties.

“There are some crooks and a myriad of imposters capitalizing on the oppression of independent journalists by some errant politicians and are therefore intimidating them (reporters) at will, denying them access to information as a cover-up for their bogus activities,” said Moyo.

On the 8th of December, in the company of a colleague, Melody Hamutyinei, a fellow journalist, the two crossed over to Hatfield, tracking down a self-styled bogus doctor and Chief Executive Officer for Community Health Options, Dr Raymond Chamba, who had allegedly fleeced scores of desperate job seekers of thousands of dollars in unjustified and therefore suspicious employment fees.

“We found him comfortably hibernating at number 54 George Road, Hatfield after he sneaked away from his former Karigamombe Centre offices following reports that his victims continued to nag his bogus premises, demanding their dues as they realized that they had been duped,” said Moyo.

“At the entrance, we were greeted by some three ladies who posed as secretaries, apparently standing like bodyguards as there were no chairs, not even an office phone to complement Chamba’s professionalism.” The two journalists were allowed in the doctor’s office after one of the secretaries dashed into the office to inform the boss about their arrival although they did not have an appointment.

Initially, the two journalists had tried to call Chamba on his number to place an appointment, but the voice mail informed us that the number was no longer in use until one of his victims who declined to be named gave the two directions to his new venue of scams in Hatfield. “There were three professional looking guys who greeted us when we gained entry to the office, but at first impression they were not at all comfortable with our presence.

“On introducing our aim of coming to the place, the guy who identified himself as Dr Raymond Chamba threatened to hand us over to one of his Central Intelligence operative friend, whom he claimed was nearby,” said Moyo. “He said he was not comfortable to speak to us as he did not know us and immediately jolted for the exit, banged the door shut after him and apparently locked us inside.

“Two guys remained with us, questioned us, asked us about what we were doing for the American Embassy, asked us about the whereabouts of The Zimbabwean Editor,  Wilf Mbanga. “They fired a barrage of questions whose answers we could not give because we were completely petrified with fear. They demanded our press cards, which unfortunately we did not have on us.

“We could have been wrong by forgetting to carry our press cards, but detaining us was utterly not within the bounds of their prerogative. For close to two hours, the guys whose names we could not get grilled us over and over again.

“Later, I sought permission to make a call and it was surprisingly granted and I made a call to Dumisani Mleya, Assistant Editor of The Zimbabwe Independent, whose conversation I still think cooled the flaring tempers in the office of detention as our interrogators became a bit friendly with us probably after following my talk with Dumisani, which to them indicated indeed we were journalists.

“Later on, Dr Chamba stormed the office with three fierce-looking guys, who identified themselves as police officers although they did not produce their identity cards. Their arrival aggravated our fears. “We were immediately whisked away in an unmarked blue Peugeot 306 vehicle, which drove round and round with us, driven by a very hostile woman who kept asking us why we came without our press cards. “We were bundles of shivers as we did not know what lied ahead of us. “The vehicle dumped us at Hatfield Police Station, where we were further detained for over three hours in the Intelligence unity, awaiting Chamba to come and launch an official police report.

The police kept calling Chamba on his phone, but he also kept terminating their calls with the intentions best known to him. Police had to find no other option except to release us and let us go after strongly warning us against neglecting our press cards when carrying out our journalistic duties. But still questions lingered in my head: Did the police know that some imposters, crooks and scammers were using them to stop newsmen from probing them (scammers)? Did the police bother to investigate people like Chamba?

“This rot will perpetuate into catastrophic proportions if police will work with blinkers and undermine operations of journalists in trying to bring crooks to book. “I will never forget the incident. It may sound very minor to the journalism giants around me for it was not handled as news then, but it was such a nasty experience. “ For a young journalist to be detained and interrogated for the first time in his or her carrier spells out serious terror, especially in a country where journalists are deemed enemies of the state and agents of neo-imperialism by forces that have perpetually sought to maintain their unjustified tenacity to power,” said Moyo.

In light of the increasing harassment of media practitioners, the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists said it intended to introduce a press card that would be issued by the Union. "We would like to have our own press card that identifies journalists in the country. We want to do that so as to weed out people who masquerade as journalists, because it is easy for the state to give its agents the ZMC (Zimbabwe Media Commission) accreditation card," said the union’s Secretary General Foster Dongozi.

Since the mid 90s colleges that offer journalism have been sprouting up.  Today there are more than six institutions of higher learning that offer journalism courses despite that the media market is not expanding. An estimated 100 journalism graduates are released into the media market each year and fail to get jobs. Although the ZMC gave licenses to five newspapers midyear, only one paper has been able to start operating and it cannot absorb all college graduates. Other papers that were issued with licences are still to start due to the economic challenges.

"I have gone to all the papers in the country and I have not been any lucky. All the papers want experienced writers. But I have never been in the field long enough to gain experience. I hope that I would get a job one day. Meanwhile I write for The Zimbabwean and I am happy that I am gaining experience. However, my passion is to be a broadcaster," said Moyo.

The broadcasting sector if it was open would have perhaps created opportunities for scores of journalists. However, the government has been reluctant to grant licenses to new players despite that it is one of the requirements of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) signed by President Robert Mugabe of Zanu (PF) and the two Movement for Democratic (MDC) faction leaders Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy premier Arthur Mutambara.

After the detention the two journalists headed for the offices of ZMC seeking to be registered. They were given forms in which they have to give away their home addresses, phone numbers and ID numbers. The two were denied accreditation because The Zimbabwean which is based in London, but is distributed in Zimbabwe, is not registered. This means the two risk being arrested again if they continue to report for The Zimbabwean.