Government denies accusations of stifling dissent amid growing anger over deepening economic crisis.
Harare, Zimbabwe – Award-winning documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono has never been one to hold back his opinion.
Even as a young journalism student in the early 1990s, he was not afraid to speak out and demand accountability.
“He sort of kept a record of when a lecturer missed class,” recalls former classmate Njabulo Ncube. “He would say, ‘We came here to learn and lecturers missing classes cannot be tolerated’. At one time, he took the matter to the principal of the college.”
Some 30 years later, the independent journalist and anti-corruption campaigner remains as forthright, a symbol of defiance for many in a country where few dare to protest.
‘Will not be cowed’
On Monday, Chin’ono will appear in court for allegedly inciting public violence following his endorsement of planned anti-government protests in late July.
Chin’ono’s latest troubles began in June after he used social media to expose allegedly corrupt coronavirus-related contracts for the $60m acquisition of protective equipment for healthcare workers. Along with top government officials, Chin’ono and other journalists also linked the son of President Emmerson Mnangagwa to the scandal – allegations denied by both Collins Mnangagwa and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the party that has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.
“ZANU-PF has noted with concern the systematic well-choreographed and sponsored attacks on the integrity of the first family by unscrupulous characters such as Hopewell Chin’ono this time targeting the president’s son,” spokesman Patrick Chinamasa said at a news conference on July 4. “We are aware that these baseless attacks did not start today but need to stop forthwith.”
It was a chilling warning, prompting Chin’ono to say on Twitter that his “life is now in danger” but also to declare that he “will not be cowed to fear”.
On July 20, less than two weeks before the opposition-organised protests, police smashed a glass door as they raided Chin’ono’s Harare home and took him away, charging him with “incitement to participate in a gathering with intent to promote public violence, breaches of peace or bigotry”.
He spent 45 days in prison. Upon his release in September on bail, he shed light on the poor state of the penal system and prisons in the country, which he likened to “concentration camps”.
Two weeks ago, he was arrested again and charged with contempt of court but prosecutors later dropped the charges. He has since been charged again with attempting to “defeat the course of justice” following his criticism of the country’s National Prosecuting Authority in the case of a gold smuggler with political connections.
“It’s all designed to intimidate journalists,” Chin’ono, who denies all charges, told Al Jazeera. “I am not intimidated. If they do this to me, other journalists will think twice about reporting corruption.”
Unperturbed, he has continued posting to his 172,000 Twitter and 63,000 Facebook followers.
“In 1980 [when Zimbabwe attained independence from Britain], I was 9 years old. Today, I am 49, [and] the same people who told me that I was the future are saying they will be with us until 2030 as they continue to loot everyone’s future,” he wrote on Facebook recently. “I won’t allow my children’s future to be stolen as mine was through corruption, looting and plunder. No.”
‘A brilliant journalist’
Born in Harare on March 26, 1971, Chin’ono entered journalism somewhat circumstantially, he confesses.
At the age of 18, he was commissioned by Prize Beat Magazine to profile Jamaican reggae star Dennis Brown, who in 1989 toured Zimbabwe. Clad in a school uniform, he showed up for an interview with Brown at his Holiday Inn suite in the capital, Harare.
“I spent hours with Dennis and his wife talking about reggae, smoking and drinking,” Chin’one recalls. “It became a big party.”
From those early days onwards, his future career was sort of cut out for him. He enrolled at the Zimbabwe Institute of Mass Communication, where he excelled.
“He is a brilliant journalist,” says Ncube, the current coordinator of the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum. “In college, he was on top of the class and well-liked.”
After graduating in 1993, he left Zimbabwe to advance his studies in the United Kingdom, where he later worked for broadcasters such as BBC and ITV.
He eventually settled back in Zimbabwe in 2007, but the state of his country under then-President Robert Mugabe left him dismayed.
“The economy was totally changed. Prices were unbelievably high and shops were empty,” he says. “The state had collapsed and corruption was institutionalised.”
Propelled by the dire economic situation at home and the impact it was having on Zimbabweans, Chin’ono began filming Pain in my Heart, a compelling documentary on the state of Zimbabwe’s affairs.
“The documentary was a juxtaposition of two stories of a political matter around two people infected with HIV and suffering from AIDS. The other was getting medication from a church while the other could not afford medication,” he says. “The other lived while the other died from AIDs-related complications.”
After the success of Pain in my Heart – which, in 2008, won Chin’ono the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Award, the Kaiser Family Foundation Award for Excellence in HIV/AIDS Reporting in Africa, and the CNN African Journalist of the Year Award – he set up Television International in Zimbabwe, a news production house, and continued collaborating with international broadcasters for special assignments.
Throughout, he has remained committed to exposing injustice.
“I believe in a society that respects the rule of law, that respects the vote and a society that does not encourage corruption,” Chin’ono says. “Those are my core beliefs.”
On social media, many seem to share Chin’ono’s views, and a cursory scan of comments shows overwhelming support and messages of solidarity. Some offer prayers for protection; others simply write notes of encouragement.
“Brother Hopewell, we can’t thank you enough for the work you are doing fighting corruption in our country,” reads one comment. “Hopewell our hope, corruption destroys lives. My wish is that one day all our people will join hands in fighting evil corruption,” says another user.
Chin’ono himself often takes to social media to criticise the government, but things have not always been so abrasive between him and Mnangagwa’s administration.
When Mnangagwa took over in a military coup in November 2017 and pledged political and economic reforms, Chin’ono, like many other Zimbabweans, threw his weight behind the ZANU-PF stalwart.
“I supported the idea of reforms he [Mnangagwa] was pursuing,” Chin’ono says. “I thought he was genuine and there was no point in criticising the coup itself because it had happened and was irreversible. For purposes of progress, it was sensible to support his reforms.”
“Fast forward to October 2018, I had realised there were no reforms,” he says, noting it was then that he “started making noise”.
In August of that year, six opposition supporters were killed when soldiers opened fire on people protesting against what they viewed as an attempt by the ZANU-PF party to steal tightly contested elections. Meanwhile, Zimbabweans continue to struggle to cope with a deepening economic crisis characterised by sky-high inflation and foreign currency shortages, as well as a devastating mix of a rapidly weakening currency, stagnant salaries and high unemployment.
Human rights campaigners and rights groups have also decried an “unprecedented” clampdown on dissent that has resulted in the arrests of dozens of activists and opposition officials. The government has denied stifling opposing voices.
But just before his return to court, Chin’ono says he will keep up his fight against wrongdoing.
“Fighting corruption is something that we should all do, and it’s not my fight alone,” he says. ‘We don’t have to wait for a moment of inspiration to start fighting corruption. It’s something we should do every day.’
For former schoolmate Ncube, this kind of determination by Chin’ono is nothing new.
“I remember, we had an accommodation problem at the college in those days and he fought for that. We were struggling and yet there were newly built hostels at the college that were yet to be officially opened,” he says.
In the end, under sustained pressure from Chin’ono and others, school officials allocated the rooms to the students.
“I am not surprised he is taking on authorities,” Ncube says.