Election coverage met with violence in Zimbabwe

Local News
Police at a CCC rally

Godwin Mangudya was punched, slapped and burned with cigarettes. Assailants beat and kicked Toneo Rutsito so hard he lost a tooth. Their crime? Journalism.

The assaults on the Zimbabwean journalists came as they tried to cover political events. VOA journalist Mangudya was attacked by security personnel from the ruling Zanu-PF party, and Rutsito, an editor at a local publication, was beaten by its supporters.

They are among a growing number of journalists reporting violence in the run-up to the 2023 elections, with the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) saying around 30 journalists have been attacked, arrested or harassed this year.

During the same week in October that Mangudya was beaten, four other journalists were attacked or obstructed, Misa and the Committee to Protect Journalists reported.

In 2022, Zimbabwe dropped seven points in the global Press Freedom Index to 137th out of 180 countries, where No. 1 has the best conditions.

"The situation is worsening for journalists,” said Tabani Moyo, director of Misa Zimbabwe. While this is always the case ahead of elections, “this one is promising to be even more drastic and dire for the media,” he told VOA.

'Dangerous trend'

“We are seeing a dangerous trend of attacks,” oftentimes orchestrated by the police and political parties, he said. “The numbers show that covering any political story in Zimbabwe induces politically motivated attacks on the press.”

In Mangudya’s case, the reporter was on assignment for VOA’s Studio 7 in Harare on October 8, covering the Zanu-PF central committee elections.

After showing his press credentials, Mangudya said, he was initially barred from entry to the event. Then an official agreed to an interview. At the conclusion of the interview, he was accosted by security personnel who said he should have left earlier.

Mangudya explained that he’d been granted an interview, whereupon the security folks took his phone, deleted the footage, sat him down on a chair and beat him.

“They were slapping me in the face, on the head, and some were stabbing me with lit cigarettes,” he said.

Mangudya said the assailants appeared to be Zanu -PF security.

Yolanda Lopez, VOA’s acting director, appealed to officials to hold those responsible accountable.

“We are deeply concerned about the unprovoked and unjustified assault on our reporter,” Lopez said in a statement.

'All hell broke loose'

Rutsito, who edits the online magazine TechnoMag, was assaulted by what he described as Zanu-PF thugs August 25, while attempting to cover an event by an opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), near Gokwe.

He arrived to find Zanu-PF vehicles blocking the entrance to the rally, so he and his colleagues started filming. That’s when a mob of people in ruling-party regalia set upon them.

“All hell broke loose. They dragged us out of the car, we were beaten … literally, it was more than 10 guys just beating you … with boots, just hitting you with whatsoever they can … I was screaming, trying just to cover my face,” Rutsito told VOA.

He lost a front tooth, and a female colleague was knocked unconscious.

Asked for comment, Zanu PF party representative Christopher Mutsvangwa said: “As a party we encourage a congenial working environment for journalists so they can discharge their role without hindrance.”

He directed specific questions about assaults to the government.

Dangers increase

One of Zimbabwe’s most renowned investigative journalists, Hopewell Chin’ono, whose multiple arrests on spurious charges have made international headlines, told VOA, “The environment is certainly worse than what it was in 2020.

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“Journalists are being arrested on trumped-up charges and jailed without trial. Some journalists have been beaten up by ruling-party thugs and nothing has been done,” he said.

Zimbabwe has been a difficult environment for journalists for decades, but after longtime President Robert Mugabe was ousted in 2017, some hoped that might change.

Despite promises of a “new dispensation” under current leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, critics say things are just as bad, if not worse.

“Mnangagwa’s regime has openly been violent against journalists. Mugabe tried to hide it,” said Chin’ono. “Mnangagwa’s regime targets journalists who expose corruption and those who expose misrule and the violence.”

Chin’ono added that violence against reporters could affect coverage of the election as well as the public’s access to information about the polls.

Doing their duty

But both Mangudya and Rutsito are undeterred.

“I’ll continue with my job. It’s not something that will stop me,” said Mangudya. “We will continue to soldier on and fight for our rights.”

Rutsito echoed this, saying, “It will get risky, it will get much more dangerous … but we need to get into the field.”

Nyasha Chingono, a freelance journalist who writes for international media outlets, told VOA, “In the run-up to any election, things tend to heat up.”

He noted there are precautions reporters can take, including informing editors and colleagues of their location, wearing press insignia and sticking with other journalists.

While the majority of incidents involved the ruling party, the opposition is not exempt from such accusations.

In September, Ruvimbo Muchenje, a journalist for local website NewsHawks, was barred entry to a CCC event and thrown to the ground by security. Another reporter was also denied entry and harassed.

The CCC apologised, saying it was an error, but the Information ministry was quick to condemn the opposition.

When asked about the incident, CCC spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere referred VOA to its earlier statement that said security had been beefed up after explosives were thrown at opposition leader Nelson Chamisa's convoy and petrol bombs found at a venue.

The security team was trying to manage a large crowd whose members were fleeing, she said.

"In the midst of this emergency response effort, a misunderstanding arose between journalist Ruvimbo Muchenje and one of our security officers, leading to a regrettable incident of assault," the statement said, adding it had apologied to Muchenje.

Speaking more generally, Mahere told VOA, “We know that Zanu-PF is running scared as we edge closer to elections and so journalists are constantly under attack.”

Mahere said the CCC is concerned that attacks will prevent access to all political parties and “compromise the freeness and fairness of the elections.”

Monica Mutsvangwa, Zimbabwe’s information minister, said in a WhatsApp message that press freedom is enshrined in the country’s constitution.

“However, journalists and media personnel cannot breach security protocols in the name of freedom of expression and access to information,” she told VOA.

“Whoever has been harassed should report to the law enforcing agents and the law will take its course.”

Both Mangudya and Rutsito reported their assaults to the police but said, so far, nothing had come of it.

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