Harare, Zimbabwe – For the first time in more than a year, Jeffrey Moyo, reporter for The New York Times in Zimbabwe, is breathing rather easy.
Last May, he was arrested and imprisoned for 21 days on accusations of obtaining fake press credentials for two New York Times journalists who entered his home country last year on a reporting trip. Since then, he has frequently shuttled between Harare, the capital where he lives, and a court in Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city, some 500km (310 miles) south.
“I am happy that I have not been cast into prison,” Moyo told Al Jazeera on Wednesday, a day after being convicted on charges of breaching the country’s immigration laws.
But the prospect of ending up in jail still hovers over the 37-year-old journalist who was awarded a two-year suspended prison term, which can be imposed if he is convicted of a similar crime in the next five years. He was ordered to pay a fine of 200,000 Zimbabwe dollars (about $450).
“It could have been worse,” Moyo said, while still describing the decision as “outrageous and irrational”.
Zimbabwe, which is in the grips of an economic crisis characterised by hyperinflation, a rapidly devaluing local currency, 90 percent unemployment and declining manufacturing output, has a notorious history of repressive media laws and undermining press freedom.
The onslaught on journalists began with the enactment of the infamous Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, enacted as the southern African state descended further into authoritarianism under Robert Mugabe, its first president.
Under the draconian law, a popular independent daily, the Daily News, was shut down for years and many journalists were arrested.
‘Akin to applying lipstick to a frog’
After backing anti-government protests in July 2020, investigative journalist and government critic Hopewell Chin’ono was detained three times and spent two months in prison.
This year, several journalists have been arrested for various offences while they were doing their work.
Two weeks ago, police detectives raided the home of ZimLive.com publisher and editor Mduduzi Mathuthu in Bulawayo. He turned himself over to the police within a week and was charged with insulting and undermining the authority of the president in a tweet.
If found guilty, Mathuthu faces a year in jail or a fine of up to 4,800 Zimbabwean dollars ($12) or both, according to the law.
In early May, police arrested Blessed Mhlanga and Chengeto Chidi, independent journalists from online TV channel Heart & Soul TV, after they photographed officers attempting to detain an opposition lawmaker in Chitungwiza, south of Harare. If convicted, they could face up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 70,000 Zimbabwean dollars ($155), according to the criminal code.
In the last few years, Zimbabwe’s ranking on the 2022 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has been on a sustained decline amid concerns the country is reversing the gains it made following Mugabe’s removal.
In the aftermath of the coup, Zimbabwe initially rose on the index, but has been on a decline in the past two years.
In 2022, Zimbabwe was ranked 137th, seven places lower than the year before. The accompanying RSF report noted that extremely harsh laws are still in effect and, when new laws have been adopted, their provisions are just as harsh as those they replaced.
“The amended penal code and Official Secrets Act and the new Cyber Security and Data Protection Act continue to hamstring journalism,” it said. “In theory, the confidentiality of sources is protected by law, but that hasn’t been the case in practice.”
In a country where journalism is increasingly being criminalised, Moyo’s conviction has sent shivers down the spines of many practitioners.
“That Jeffrey Moyo has been found on the wrong side of the ‘law’ does not come as a surprise because such an accomplishment is not very difficult in a virtual police state like Zimbabwe,” a veteran journalist, who requested anonymity for fear of being targeted by the authorities, told Al Jazeera. “It is a confirmation that what [President] Emmerson Mnangagwa told the world through his New York Times article [a 2018 op-ed on ‘a new Zimbabwe’] is a lie. If anything, he is worse than Mugabe.”
Nyasha Chingono, a stringer for The Guardian and CNN, told Al Jazeera that he was now worried about working with foreign media because of “fear that I will be tracked down once the foreign journalists leave”.
Angela Quintal, the Africa coordinator of the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said the court’s decision showed that press freedom in Zimbabwe had worsened under Mnangagwa, who promised democracy after seizing power in a palace coup from his friend Mugabe in November 2017.
“The fact that Moyo’s prison sentence was suspended does not make it any less of a mockery of justice,” Quintal said. “Authorities must not contest Moyo’s appeal, and ensure that he and other journalists can work in Zimbabwe freely, especially with a general election scheduled for next year.”
In August 2023, presidential elections are due in Zimbabwe and now there are worries that in the build-up to the polls, there could be an intensified onslaught on its media.
“The conviction of Jeffrey Moyo gives credence to assertions that media reforms under the so-called Second Republic is akin to applying lipstick to a frog; trying to beautify the pig. It still remains ugly,” Njabulo Ncube, coordinator of the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum, told Al Jazeera.
“This has the adverse effect of instilling fear on our journalists, resulting in self-censorship and fear to assist our regional and international colleagues from following the Zimbabwe story,” he said.
And the man at the centre of the debate is almost certain that his conviction is a harbinger of worse things to come for the media in Zimbabwe.
“I am now living in fear, especially following this conviction, knowing anytime the regime can pounce on me or any other journalist trying to do their work with foreign colleagues who are perceived as ‘saboteurs’,” Moyo said.
And he is worried that even though he may not go to prison, he will carry the convict tag. So he wants to change that. “My defence team will make an application to overturn the conviction and sentence,” he told Al Jazeera.