Award exposes dangers of investigative journalism in Africa

john_chimunhuHARARE - Many were personally approached by their bosses and told theyd be fired if they gave their stories to us When the editor of The Zimbabwean, Wilf Mbanga, commissioned me several months ago to do an investigation into the goings on at the state broadcaster ZBC I was elated. (Pictured: John Chimhunu with

We had a good story, with willing sources and I was confident that something big would come out of it. As soon as I started work on it, however, one of my main sources gave me this chilling warning: My friend you are dealing with military people here. They will do everything to stop you. Please do not use your name on stories. You will be killed.

Fear of death has never prevented me from doing my work in the news business, so I took my sources advice with a lot of scepticism. My father was shot dead at point blank range by Mugabes forces when I was 12. From that day on I decided to be a journalist because I felt that military revenge would not have been my fathers wish. His wish would have been: Expose them! And thats what I have been doing all my life.

I have stuck with that passion, publicizing scandals wherever they exist and making sure the perpetrators get what they deserve: justice, or else unwanted publicity for their dirty acts! Its not an easy task.

I have a certain aversion to journalism competitions, so when some colleagues suggested that I enter the Federation of African Media Women gender sensitive awards I was not too keen. But FAMWZ, like the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media and Communication, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, some ZBC board and staff members, individual victims of abuse and others had been very reliable partners in the investigations and I felt I could not let them down by staying away. So I entered!

When the winners were announced on December 4, I was excited. It was an opportunity to shake hands with the gender, community development and womens affairs minister Olivia Muchena, the FAMWZ director Angela Makamure, chairperson Ropa Mapimhidze and one of the judges, Margaret Chinowaita. Knowing how much Zanu (PF) resents the independent media and what they have said and done to strangle it, I felt enthralled. Would the minister still have been so excited had she known that we were busily embarrassing their blue-eyed boys at Pockets Hill (the ZBC headquarters)?

Once, interviewing the ZBC head, Happison Muchechetere, he asked me, tongue in cheek, Whats so Zimbabwean about you people? You represent the interests of the British! I ignored him then and concentrated on the real issues. On Friday, as the acclaim fell on my colleagues and I, I felt that I had an answer: We do represent the feelings, aspirations and needs of Zimbabweans and no-one, not even Muchechetere, could take that away from us. I was thankful that I had editors brave enough to tackle such a sensitive story and sources willing to spill the beans in the face of horrendous threats and attacks! Many of them were personally approached by their bosses and told theyd be fired if they gave their stories to us, but they rejected that. Freedom, they said, was much more important than a job where you were daily subjected to humiliation and abuse.

After receiving the award, one young former ZBC employee walked up to me and said, You know, everything that you wrote is true. I am one of those who were humiliated. One day, they called four of us interns to a meeting. There were a lot of men in the room and just one woman. They questioned me about my clothes the miniskirts that I wore, the slacks. All four of us were told not to wear miniskirts. But afterwards the other women at ZBC asked us why we were targeted. They also wore minis, but why were they not asked about it? So we knew we were targeted because we were new.

I asked the young lady if she had ever slept with her bosses. No, she replied. But I was asked out twice by Obrian Rwafa, she said. Media specialist Koliwe Nyoni, deputy info officer of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) said it was wrong for bosses to ask their staff out late at night. It amounted to sexual harassment in many cases, she said.

Do the women have a choice? Nyoni said. During the awards, I spoke about the importance of ethics in preserving media freedom in Africa. I told the audience about the phone calls I had received and offers of bribes if I dropped the investigation. I stuck to it and Im not ashamed it paid off.

Once, I got a call from a staffer at ZBC, obviously under instruction from someone high up. You are really doing us a lot of damage with your stories, the guy complained. Could we meet at a local hotel and talk things over, perhaps stop all the bad publicity? I agreed to meet, only on condition some other people would be present during the meeting. I lined up some media colleagues from to cover what I expected would be an explosive confrontation. Typically, when he considered I might be a tough customer, the guy did not show up.

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