Zimbabwean investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono has over the years leveraged his large social media following to share posts about human rights abuses and alleged government corruption.
On June 20, after a series of tweets in the run-up to an opposition-organised protest, police arrived at his home in the capital, Harare.
“They are breaking into my home. Alert the world!” Chin’ono said, as he live-streamed his arrest on Facebook.
The 49-year-old was charged with inciting the public to commit violence for his role in promoting the demonstrations against corruption and a worsening economic crisis under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Chin’ono, who in June helped expose the alleged non-transparent awarding of contracts for essential supplies to battle the coronavirus pandemic, denies the charges. On Thursday, he was denied bail for a second time.
“Journalism is not a crime, but a crucial pillar of any democratic society and of the fight against corruption. Journalists and freedom of expression deserve protection,” the European Union embassy in Zimbabwe said after Chin’ono’s arrest that coincided with the detention of opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume, who had called for the protests.
The planned demonstrations on July 31 were denounced by Mnangagwa as “an insurrection to overthrow our democratically elected government”, while the police banned them, citing coronavirus restrictions.
As hundreds of soldiers and police officers were deployed in major cities, several people, including award-winning author Tsitsi Dangarembga, defied the police order and took to the streets in their neighbourhoods to protest. They were swiftly arrested and have since been released on bail.
“Zimbabweans have a constitutional right to peacefully protest but the government disregards this right by unnecessarily deploying heavy-handed security forces,” said Dewa Mavhinga, the Southern Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “These actions severely undermine human rights in the country.”
Government critics and rights groups say the recent wave of arrests and alleged rights abuses are reminiscent of the heavy-handed tactics used by Mnangagwa’s predecessor, longtime President Robert Mugabe.
“Zimbabweans are witnessing unprecedented abuses that may very well be worse than witnessed under Mugabe,” said Mavhinga, citing “a sharp increase in abductions, torture and sexual abuse targeting government critics and involving security forces”.
Mavhinga added that “the latest crackdown on anti-corruption protesters and government critics is a clear sign that the Mnangagwa administration does not respect human rights and the rule of law”.
Human rights lawyers, meanwhile, decried “an unprecedented clampdown” on dissent while social media users used the #Zimbabweanlivesmatter hashtag to highlight the arrests. Some activists, meanwhile, said they had gone into hiding.
“Several attempts have been made to abduct and murder us. It is imperative that we remain outside to coordinate and provide the required leadership,” said political activist Promise Mkwananzi.
“We are worried and vehemently opposed to the wanton arrests of human rights activists and anti-corruption whistle-blowers,” Mkwananzi added
But government spokesman Nick Mangwana dismissed the allegations, saying “there were no premeditated plots to arrest people in Zimbabwe”.
“Nothing informs the arrest of suspected criminals in our country other than the commission of a crime. Anyone who is arrested in Zimbabwe will have charges levelled against him or her, and all the cases are speedily taken to court,” Mangwana said.
“As far as we are concerned, no opposing voices have been stifled in Zimbabwe. You can attest to the fact that Zimbabweans enjoy freedom of expression and are the most vocal people in the continent.”
Mnangagwa came to power after the military removed Mugabe in November 2017. He went on to win a disputed election the following year, promising to tackle corruption and revive the country’s shattered economy.
But two years on, Zimbabwe is facing a severe economic crisis marked by soaring inflation, foreign exchange shortages and a local currency that is rapidly depreciating against the US dollar. An estimated 90 percent of Zimbabweans are without formal employment.
This week, UN chief Antonio Guterres urged the government “to ensure the protection of all fundamental human rights” while South African President Cyril Ramaphosa named two new special envoys to the neighbouring country “following recent reports of difficulties that the Republic of Zimbabwe is experiencing”.
Despite the mounting international pressure, Mnangagwa on Tuesday issued a warning to his political opponents: “Bad apples who have attempted to divide our people and to weaken our systems will be flushed out,” he said in a televised address to the nation.
“Enough is enough.”
The president’s speech came as he appointed his deputy, Constantino Chiwenga, to replace Health Minister Obadiah Moyo who was removed from his post amid allegations of corruption related to the government’s procurement of medical equipment for the coronavirus pandemic. Moyo was arrested in June but was later freed on bail.
“President Mnangagwa revitalised the fight against corruption by appointing new members of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission and furnishing them with the requisite equipment and wherewithal to undertake their noble mission,” Mangwana said.
“Such commitment to fighting corruption does not need a prod from any so-called ‘activists’.”
But the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has condemned Chiwenga’s appointment, saying he is not the right man for the job at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is further stretching Zimbabwe’s already fragile healthcare system.
The country has so far recorded more than 4,450 confirmed coronavirus cases and 102 related deaths.