Zimbabwean police have arrested an investigative journalist and an opposition official, accusing them of inciting violence ahead of street demonstrations planned for next week by activists who charge government corruption has exacerbated economic hardship.
The journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, has a big following on Twitter, where he regularly posts about alleged government corruption. He has also been using his account to encourage Zimbabweans to speak out and act against corruption.
“They are breaking into my home. Alert the world!” Chin’ono tweeted as police raided his home in the capital, Harare, on Monday. His lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, said he was detained at a police station but was being denied access to lawyers.
The arrest of Chin’ono, a Harvard University Nieman Fellow, drew sharp criticism in Zimbabwe and abroad.
“Political intimidation of the press has no place in democracies,” tweeted the US embassy in Harare, which in the past has been accused by the ruling party of “sponsoring” Chin’ono.
The European Union embassy in Harare said: “We are concerned by the arrest of Chin’ono this morning and call for his immediate release. Journalism is not a crime, but a crucial pillar of any democratic society & of the fight against corruption. Journalists and freedom of expression deserve protection.
The Dutch embassy described Chin’ono’s arrest as “part of a worrying trend against free speech in Zimbabwe”.
The organiser of the planned July 31 protest, opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume, is also in police custody, said Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which is providing lawyers for him.
Police spokesman Paul Nyathi said Chin’ono and Ngarivhume have been charged with “incitement to participate in public violence” and would appear in court “soon”.
Government spokesman Nick Mangwana wrote on Twitter that “journalists are not above the law”.
“Anyone suspected to have committed a crime should be subjected to due process,” he tweeted a few hours after the arrests.
Journalists, lawyers, doctors and nurses are among those who have been arrested in recent months in Zimbabwe for protesting, striking for better pay or, in some cases, simply doing their work amid rising tensions in the country.
A deteriorating economy and reports of widespread corruption linked to government contracts for the purchase of COVID-19 personal protective gear and drugs amid poor service delivery have further stoked public anger.
In June, Chin’ono said he feared for his life after governing ZANU-PF party spokesman Patrick Chinamasa accused the journalist of seeking to embarrass President Emmerson Mnangagwa by linking the president’s family to alleged corrupt COVID-19-related contracts.
“He is being victimised for exposing corruption in government,” Foster Dongozi, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, said in a statement.
Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, said the arrests are “designed to intimidate and send a chilling message to journalists, whistle-blowers and activists who draw attention to matters of public interest in Zimbabwe.
“Zimbabwean authorities must stop misusing the criminal justice system to persecute journalists and activists who are simply exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The authorities must stop using the police and courts to silence dissent.”