Beset by economic problems and controversy over its military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo civil war, President Robert Mugabe's government increasingly clamped down on independent media and their efforts to question his rule.

The most egregious attack on press freedom in Zimbabwe last year was the illegal arrest and torture in January of Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto, both journalists with the Standard newspaper, after they published an article claiming that 23 army officers had been arrested for plotting a coup. Government agents reportedly beat the journalists, applied electric shocks to their hands, feet, and genitals, and submerged their heads in drums of water. When Chavunduka and Choto appeared in court in January, both bore visible cigarette burns on their bodies.

The two journalists were charged under the Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA) of 1960, a widely discredited piece of legislation that Zimbabwe's pre-independence government used to suppress black nationalism. In February, four journalists from the Zimbabwe Mirror newspaper were also arrested and charged under the same law, but charges were later dropped.

Meanwhile, Parliament passed the less repressive Public Order and Security Bill, intended to replace LOMA. Mugabe had yet to sign the new bill at year's end. Some Zimbabwean journalists argued that the president was refusing to sign the bill because he wanted to make sure that Chavunduka and Choto were charged under the more draconian LOMA. In early January 2000, a magistrate in Harare postponed the trial until July 7, 2000. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Supreme Court was expected to hear in March 2000 Chavunduka and Choto's constitutional challenge to the LOMA provision under which they were charged.

President Mugabe fully supported the army's arrest of Chavunduka and Choto. He also defied a court order to release them. In a February address on state TV and radio, an angry Mugabe threatened "very stern measures" against the independent press and suggested that the Supreme Court resign. These statements came in response to a letter from three Supreme Court justices asking him to "confirm that the rule of law is accepted as a necessary ingredient of a democratic Zimbabwe." The letter also asked him to reassure the judiciary that the army had no power to arrest civilians, that the government did not tolerate torture, and that the government would act in accordance with Zimbabwe's constitution.

On February 4, Minister of Information Chen Chimuntengwende announced that the government was planning to introduce more-stringent measures to regulate private media organizations in Zimbabwe. The proposed measures would include restricting the media sector to local investors, limiting investment in private media, and introducing a new set of press regulations.

On March 8, Senior Secretary for Information, Posts, and Telecommunications Willard Chwewe added that the government was drafting a new media law to "facilitate" the operations of various media organizations in Zimbabwe. Among other things, the new law would create a media council to regulate the professional conduct of journalists. In April, Mugabe vowed in the state-owned Sunday Mail to strengthen state powers against the media, including the broadening of the country's criminal-libel laws, "so that journalists will not be able to use their pen as a bloody sword."

In the same vein, Zimbabwe's draft constitution, unveiled in December, includes a section calling for the creation of a media commission with powers to take disciplinary action against media workers "found to have breached any law or code of conduct applicable to them."

In response, a number of local journalists formed the Independent Journalists' Association of Zimbabwe, which was launched on September 4. The organization seeks to protect and promote the rights of independent Zimbabwean journalists. Their situation remains precarious: in November, Ray Choto and several other journalists received anonymous death threats.

Janaury 12
Mark Chavunduka, The Sunday Standard IMPRISONED, ATTACKED
Ray Choto, The Sunday Standard IMPRISONED, ATTACKED

Military-police officers arrested Chavunduka, editor of the independent weekly The Standard and took him to the Cranborne military barracks. The arrest resulted from an article in the January 10 edition of The Sunday Standard reporting that 23 soldiers had been arrested in December 1998 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government of President Robert Mugabe.

On January 14, the High Court issued an order for Chavunduka's release, which the military ignored. A second court order, requiring Permanent Secretary of Defense Job Whabira to produce Chavunduka in court, was also disobeyed. After the court threatened to arrest Whabira, Chavunduka was transferred to the central police station, where, on January 19, he was allowed to meet with his family and lawyers. Choto, the reporter who wrote the article and who had previously been in hiding, turned himself in to the police and was arrested the same day.

Later on January 19, both journalists were taken to an undisclosed location, where government agents reportedly beat them and applied electric shocks to their hands, feet, and genitals. The agents also submerged the journalists' heads in drums of water while demanding that they reveal their sources. When Chavunduka and Choto were brought to court on January 21, they both had cigarette burns on their bodies. Independent medical sources subsequently confirmed the allegations of torture.

The journalists were charged with publishing false information "likely to cause fear and despondency" under Section 50(2) of the Law and Order Maintenance Act of 1960 and released on bail of approximately US$250.

Chavunduka and Choto subsequently challenged the validity of the provision under which they were charged, arguing that the legislation was both too vague and too draconian to permit a fair trial. An actual trial date could be set only once the Supreme Court made a ruling on this issue, which it had not yet done by year's end.

At the same time, the two journalists filed civil and criminal charges against the police and military for wrongful arrest, detention, assault, and torture.

Meanwhile, Choto was one of three journalists who began receiving anonymous death threats.The other two were Basildon Peta of the Financial Gazette and Ibbo Mandaza of the Zimbabwe Mirror (Chavunduka was in the United States at the time). On November 21, a package arrived at Choto's home in Harare, containing a teddy bear, two live bullets, and an anonymous note threatening him and his family.

On November 28, Choto received a second anonymous letter, saying that he was being watched and providing details about his movements on a certain day. Part of the letter reportedly read, "We nearly pulled the trigger, but you should thank the lady who came to speak to you."

The threats apparently came in response to Chavunduka and Choto's legal campaign. CPJ protested the illegal detention, torture, and ongoing harassment of the two journalists in January 23, September 28, and December 6 letters to President Mugabe.

January 22
Clive Wilson, The Standard IMPRISONED

Members of the Criminal Investigation Department arrested Wilson, managing director of The Standard. The arrest was in connection with the same story in the January 10 edition of The Standard for which journalists Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto had been arrested earlier in January. The article alleged that a coup plot had been foiled in the Zimbabwe National Army and that 23 soldiers had been arrested.

Wilson was held in jail for three nights and interrogated about the sources for the story. He was released unconditionally on January 25 after the attorney general declined to prosecute him, citing the police's lack of evidence.

February 8
Ferayi Mungazi, Zimbabwe Mirror HARASSED
Fernando Goncalves, Zimbabwe Mirror HARASSED
Grace Kwinjeh, Zimbabwe Mirror IMPRISONED
Ibbo Mandaza, Zimbabwe Mirror IMPRISONED

Criminal Investigation Division (CID) police arrested Mungazi and Goncalves, former editor and news editor, respectively, of the independent weekly Zimbabwe Mirror. Later that day, police arrested Kwinjeh, a Mirror reporter, and Mandaza, the newspaper's publisher. The four journalists were arrested at the Mirror's editorial offices and later charged, under the Law and Order Maintenance Act, with publishing a false report likely to "cause fear, alarm, or despondency among the public."

The arrests followed an article published in the October 30, 1998, edition of the Mirror. The article reported that the parents of a soldier in the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), who was killed in action in the Democratic Republic of Congo, had received only their son's head when his remains were returned to them.

Mungazi and Goncalves were released the same day. Kwinjeh and Mandaza remained in detention until April 30, when the charges against them were dropped.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.