Beatrice Mtetwa is a prominent human rights lawyer and free press advocate in Zimbabwe who is representing journalist Hopewell Chin’ono. He was granted bail and is expected to be released later today after being held in custody since November 3 on a charge of allegedly obstructing justice. He was arrested in connection with comments he made on social media about a smuggling case.
In September, after spending about 45 days behind bars on a charge of inciting public violence, Chin’ono was released from prison on bail. That first arrest came after his sustained exposé of corruption relating to the acquisition of Covid-19 screening kits that allegedly involved senior government officials. The Zimbabwean health minister was subsequently fired for his involvement in the corruption.
Chin’ono, a 2010 Nieman Fellow whose work has focused on governance and anti-corruption, was arrested again this month after he tweeted about a major Zimbabwe gold smuggling scandal that allegedly involved the president’s wife and son. Mtetwa described the arrest as a calculated move to silence and humiliate Hopewell. Edited excerpts from my interview with her:
How is Hopewell doing physically and emotionally, especially considering that he spent almost 45 days in prison recently?
Hopewell is this time around in a better frame of mind as he has a better understanding of how the system works and that bail from the magistrates at the so-called anti-corruption courts is an impossibility. He also understands that the process is meant to humiliate him. He was once again moved to Chikurubi maximum prison where he shares a cell meant for 16 prisoners with 45 others. These conditions are a breeding ground for communicable diseases, and he has since contracted bronchitis. As there’s also an outbreak of tuberculosis and Hepatitis B, we’re crossing our fingers. Thankfully, his private doctor has been allowed to treat him and to prescribe the necessary medication. He is of course brought to court cuffed and leg-ironed, all unnecessary for someone not charged with a violent capital offense.
Is it normal for him to be tried in the anti-corruption court? Why was he taken there?
To ensure the result they want. They send the likes of Hopewell, [Joana] Mamombe [a female opposition legislator in Zimbabwe who is also facing trumped-up charges] and others to the anti-corruption court for no other reason than to deny them bail. This is the judicial capture we are talking about.
What do you expect as his case moves forward?
The justice system in Zimbabwe goes into overdrive when arrests are made and once you are in custody, everything moves at a snail’s pace. An application that can be done in a day is stretched over days under one subterfuge or another. This is to maximize the time spent in custody.
What does Hopewell’s treatment say about the state of the free press in Zimbabwe?
The treatment Hopewell and other political and civil society activists get subjected to is deliberately designed to humiliate them and to intimidate other journalists into not venturing into certain types of stories. The press is free as long as it does not question the ills which currently beset the country, which are all traceable to corruption and misgovernance. We have seen some once vibrant private newspapers who used to ‘tell it like it is’ turned into poodles who play a supporting role to the state media.
The arrest on its own constitutes serious persecution of a journalist. The tweet on which the charge is based of course does not disclose a crime. There is absolutely nothing wrong about a journalist questioning the selective use of the law where some suspects, however grave their alleged crimes, are treated with kid gloves and given bail on a platter whilst others are made to sweat for bail whilst in jail under onerous and humiliating conditions. There is a discernible abuse of the so-called anti-corruption court where suspects like Hopewell are taken in order to ensure that the coterie of select magistrates do not give them bail.
Since the arrival of this new government, they have been promising to expand freedom of expression and more particularly media freedom. Has this been the case?
Many promises were made three years ago and the majority of people were hoodwinked into believing that there would be a break with the past. Sadly, those promises went up in smoke even before the honeymoon was over and all we get are more and more threats, all consistent with a regime that sees torture as normal. Freedom of expression and of the media remain mirages that cannot be attained under the current regime. Any media practitioners who try to raise their heads by robustly reporting on the now open and undisguised corruption at levels we have never seen before will have to contend with the magistrates in the anti-corruption court. This is despite having a fairly new rights-based constitution.
What is the biggest threat to a free press in Zimbabwe?
The biggest threat to free press in Zimbabwe is undoubtedly the government and its suborned institutions, such as the judiciary and all the oversight institutions they have packed with cronies. All the talk about fighting corruption is contradicted by their actions on the ground. Why arrest a journalist who highlights corruption? Surely, he is no different from a whistleblower. The setting up of a so-called anti-corruption prosecution unit in the president’s office is clear evidence that the president wants to control the whole corruption narrative and how those who get arrested are dealt with.
I understand the media environment has turned more hostile. As someone who works closely with the media, do you think journalists feel threatened to expose more corruption?
The effect of all this on the media and journalists is that certain stories become too hot to handle and they either get watered down or end up on external small online publications with very little reach.
How are news outlets and other people from various walks of life responding to this attempt to silence Hopewell?
The response by Zimbabweans to attempts at silencing the few journos who are prepared to expose the ills in our society has been typically Zimbabwean. Lots of rottweilers on social media but no one on the ground with practical visible support. Then there are those who believe he’s asked for this treatment by not shutting up. I get many people every day asking me to advise him to keep a low profile and keep away from social media. This is how the system silenced #ThisFlag (a once vibrant social movement with so much mobilization prowess) and those who founded it. Zimbabweans seem not to make a connection between a free media and the enjoyment of rights.
What can those outside Zimbabwe do to support Hopewell and the cause of a free press in Zimbabwe?
Of course the world should not give up on us. The authorities in Zimbabwe must be reminded over and over again that freedom of expression and the media are a necessary component of any democratic processes. That oversight institutions have been severely weakened through crony appointments should also inform the world that there’s simply no desire to change how the country is run and pressure should continue to be exerted on the powers that be to implement real reforms.