My crime? Being a journalist

By a staff member of VOP radio
On December 15 last year, police raided Voice of the People (VOP) radio offices in Harare. I was out of town on private business but the news was relayed to me on my mobile.
Relatives and friends advised me to go into hiding immediately for they knew what

would inevitably happen – detention and torture at the hands of the police. I would be detained together with other board members and station managers, even though the charges would be pathetically insufficient to warrant it.
Court officials are unavailable during holidays, so detainees cannot be brought to trial in the 48 hours stipulated by our increasingly fragile and often ignored laws.
The “crime” for which I was sought was being a journalist and board member in one of Zimbabwe’s few remaining independent news outlets, VOP.
In fact, independent broadcasting had become so impossible in our own country that we had been reduced to beaming our taped reports, made inside the country, via a Radio Netherlands shortwave transmitter on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar back into Zimbabwe.
The Zanu (PF) government was upset that villagers could pick up our signals more clearly than those of state radio and television, which broadcast a steady stream of ruling party propaganda.
I heeded my friends’ and relatives’ advice and went into hiding immediately. I threw a few clothes and personal belongings into my bags and rushed to a friend’s house. I left my kids with my spouse and asked relatives to check on them the following day. But later on, during the night, I worried about my children and went back for them and sent them off to my parents’ rural home.
I became a wandering refugee in my own country. The enormity of living in a country that does not value human rights hit me like a tonne of bricks.
Not only did I have to abandon my house, but my car too, in case they spotted me driving around town. I sneaked into town now and again, but I felt very insecure and I had to rely on the country’s increasingly decrepit and inefficient public transport. It was the rainy season and I caught a heavy cold which kept me bed-ridden for days.
After the festive period, the kids came back from my parents’ home so they could go to school. It was another headache, because my spouse was also now on the run. A long-time friend took the kids in. It was traumatic for them because they did not know what had happened to their mum and dad.
I got word that the police were now searching vigorously for me and other VOP Radio executives. Ten policemen were permanently stationed outside the house of one of my colleagues. At another board member’s place, they harassed and arrested a gardener and a driver, and broke a picture frame containing my colleague’s photograph, which they took away with them.
Finally, our lawyer intervened and took me and other senior colleagues to the police station, where six of us were charged with broadcasting without a license under the country’s draconian media laws, which heavily constrain press freedom. Strictly speaking, we were not actively broadcasting, but merely sending taped reports to the Netherlands for subsequent transmission from Madagascar.
We were fingerprinted and photographed before appearing in court, where we were remanded on bail, each with orders to report regularly to Harare Central Police Station.
It was a relief to return to my own home after two months on the run. The grass was overgrown and water and electricity had been cut off because of unpaid bills. We had little money because our income dried up with the collapse of VOP.
Police found no broadcasting equipment, only computers, during the most recent raid on our offices, although we are charged among other things with transmitting broadcasts illegally. Our counsel, the distinguished human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, brought an expert witness, Amon Matambo, an engineer, who – in his testimony – defined broadcasting as the transmission of an audio or television signal via a transmitter.
We, the accused, did not possess the necessary equipment and gadgets to transmit programmes. Matambo further argued that broadcasting via the Netherlands and Madagascar did not constitute broadcasting “in” Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean radio listeners were merely recipients of products transmitted from Madagascar.
Our case has been adjourned and we return to court on April 27. Long ago we applied for a broadcasting license, but all applicants other than state radio have had their applications turned down. The government obviously considers us dangerous.
Defending freedom of thought and speech in Africa, and particularly in Zimbabwe, is not for the faint-hearted. But we take comfort from the fact that someone like former Liberian president Charles Taylor has been arrested and will be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

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