In Zimbabwe, a long-reigning dictator is gone — but press freedom still suffers

Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin'ono, left, with a supporter after his release on bail from Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare on Sept. 2. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)
Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, left, with a supporter after his release on bail from Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare on Sept. 2. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2017, Robert Mugabe, the autocrat who held power in Zimbabwe since he helped it gain independence in 1980, was toppled in a coup orchestrated by his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Millions of Zimbabweans hoped for a more prosperous and free future.

“When they finally removed Mugabe from power, people were ecstatic and they gave Emmerson the benefit of the doubt,” Angela Quintal, Africa Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me. “They were prepared to believe that he could change. Among those were people like Hopewell Chin’ono.”

Chin’ono is a journalist who recently spent several weeks in jail. The reason: The government was irked by his critical coverage of its response to the covid-19 epidemic. Last week he was finally released on bail. His main offense appears to have been accusing President Mnangagwa and his family of misappropriating funds earmarked for the virus response.

As this story shows, Mnangagwa has proven little better than his predecessor — and freedom of the press is suffering accordingly.

The ordeal of Chin’ono, a veteran investigative reporter known for his fierce criticism of Zimbabwe’s rulers and his exposure of state corruption, is far from over. He still faces a criminal trial for his critical reporting.

The authorities began threatening him publicly in June. As he and other critics of the government have grown increasingly angry about the dire state of the press, they have taken to social media to air their discontent.

“Hopewell used social media to push the narrative that the government was failing and was corrupt,” Quintal said. “It escalated when he started pointing fingers at Emmerson’s family as corrupt around covid-19 resources. He knew he was being targeted.”

The harassment, public shaming and attempts to discredit Chin’ono’s work follow similar patterns we have reported on in recent years in Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia. Few regions appear to be immune.

The ruling party in Zimbabwe responded to Chin’ono’s reporting with open threats. “We have noted the systematic targeted attacks on the first family members by unscrupulous characters like Hopewell Chin’ono targeting the president’s son,” said Patrick Chinamasa, acting spokesperson of the Zanu-PF Party. “We are warning the public and those writing these lies to stop. We wish to advise false reporters and our detractors to desist from perpetrating desperate character assassination.”

Allegations of “fake news,” as we have come to understand during the Donald Trump presidency, often end up referring to good reporting that exposes official wrongdoing and deceit.

In the era of social media, more people around the world feel emboldened to speak out against state corruption, and responses from governments — like the one targeting Chin’ono — are designed to have a chilling effect, scaring others into silence.

Yet Chin’ono remained undeterred, defiantly responding to the allegations on Twitter.

“My life is now in danger after Zanu-PF attacked me personally through their spokesperson Patrick Chinamasa,” he declared. “I am only a detractor of corruption … I am a trained journalist, if I have said something that is not true, legal remedies are there. I will not be cowed to fear.”

Soon after, his account was mysteriously disabled, which appears to be another shameful example of Twitter failing to stand up for threatened journalists. Weeks later, he was arrested and thrown into an overcrowded cell where covid-19 was running rampant. He brought his own personal protective equipment, which prison authorities seized from him upon arrival. The detention seemed designed to expose him to the disease.

The story could have easily ended there, as it so often tragically does. Perhaps the Mnangagwas hoped that it would.

But what the Zimbabwean government probably didn’t account for was Chin’ono’s network of friends and colleagues around the world who stood up and called for his release. He had been a Nieman fellow at Harvard in the class of 2010, and his cohort of fellows along with other alumni — including me — were able to shine a spotlight on his case.

But most journalists in the developing world can’t count on their plights receiving that sort of international attention. Locking up one local journalist often succeeds in setting the desired example. It’s the most effective way authoritarians have found to quiet their critics.

This is precisely why governments across Africa, and indeed much of the world, are looking for ways to monitor and censor social media.

Now Zimbabwe’s parliament is trying to fast-track new cyber-crime laws that seem designed primarily to stifle dissent. Mnangagwa and his cronies may succeed in getting them passed into law. But thanks to Hopewell Chin’ono, it won’t happen without international scrutiny.

Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.

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