Coronavirus Zimbabwe Op-ed

Covid-19 and the suppression of freedom of expression (Part Two)

A woman has her hands sanitised by a municipal police officer in Mbare, Zimbabwe on 6 April 2020. Zimbabwe is undergoing a 21-day nationwide lockdown decreed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in a bid to slow down the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.(Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

On 27 March, Ndavaningi ‘Nick’ Mangwana, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, tweeted this message from President Emmerson Mnangagwa: ‘Legal instruments are being put in place to deal with and punish those who cause unnecessary alarm and despondency through social and other media. During this emergency, we need to act responsibly.’

To people from other countries, this might sound like a perfectly acceptable message from a president during a time of crisis. However, this is Zimbabwe – a country where the president believes people are using social media to plot to remove him from power. A country where anyone who questions the government is accused of causing ‘alarm and despondency’.

This was nothing short of a declaration of war on free speech during the lockdown.

The government then announced the Public Health (Covid-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) Regulations 2020. One of the sections deals with “false reporting during the national lockdown”. It says:

“14. For the avoidance of doubt any person who publishes or communicates false news about any public officer, official, or enforcement officer involved with enforcing or implementing the national lockdown in his or her capacity as such, or about any private individual that has the effect of prejudicing the State’s enforcement of the national lockdown, shall be liable for prosecution under section 31 of the Criminal law Code (“Publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the state”) and liable to the penalty there provided, that is to say, a fine up to or exceeding twenty years or both.”

In the wrong hands, this law will be used to terrorise journalists and silence dissenting voices during the lockdown. In a country where law enforcement officers conflate the state and the party, how many people will be arrested for criticising the ruling party?

In a country where everything on social media that exposes the government’s misdeeds or tries to hold the government to account is considered false reporting, how can Zimbabweans be sure they are safe when they expose those crimes?

There have already been several reports of abuse of journalists by the police.

On 4 April, the Media Institute of Southern Africa  (MISA Zimbabwe) posted a tweet saying freelance journalist Panashe Makufa was beaten up by the police in the Harare suburb of Kuwadzana while undertaking his professional duties. Makufa told MISA that he had been taking pictures of a police operation. He was arrested, assaulted and forced to delete the pictures.

On 3 March, Mutare police arrested another journalist, Tatenda Julius, who was released after spending a night in prison and fined $500 for ‘criminal nuisance”.

In Chinhoyi, a journalist from the Newsday newspaper, Nunurai Jena, was arrested as he was taking pictures of police operations at a checkpoint and charged with disorderly conduct in a public place. Another journalist, Kudzanai Musengi, was arrested for using a 2019 accreditation card but was released after police were given a directive to let him go.

On 29 March, Mangwana posted a picture he said was of a ventilator produced by the Harare Institute of Technology, which he said he had seen for himself. He said the institution had the potential to make 40 ventilators a day. Many Zimbabweans were excited to hear the news but became sceptical after Mangwana refused to answer more questions about the ventilators. He received a tweet from Siphosami Malunga, director of OSISA:

“But seriously Nick, we expect you to be saying for example that the country needs 1,000 ventilators, 1,000 isolation beds, 10,0000 PPE so we can mobilise our networks to provide this. It’s too late to look good here. We need to focus on saving lives.”

With characteristic arrogance, the he responded, “That information will be given. For now I gave this one.”

And that was the last we heard of the ventilators.

On 30 March, Minister of Finance Mthuli Ncube announced that “treasury has set aside resources to cover one million vulnerable households under a Cash Transfer program and payment will commence immediately”. He also said $200-million a month will be set aside for the program over the next three months.

This left Zimbabweans wondering how the government had come up with the figure of one million households. Had the households been identified already? If so, who were they? What criteria was used? Above all, what were the households to do with $200 (R100) a month? Two kilograms of rice costs $95, 2l of cooking oil is $100. A typical Zimbabwean household has an average of six people. How could they survive on $200 per month?

Nobody was available to answer questions and one week later – seven days into the lockdown – there is no information about the facility.

On Tuesday 31 March, the second day of the lockdown, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe decided to hand down a judgement that had been pending for some time in a matter regarding the leadership of the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T).

Judiciary rushes to judgement

The delivery of this judgment by the highest court in the country, one day into the lockdown, was shocking to many as the Chief Justice had announced two days earlier that the courts would be closed except for urgent matters.

This decision was in no way urgent given that it was a case that had been pending for at least three years, with the appeal having been lodged almost a year before.

As expected by many, the court ruled that Nelson Chamisa is not the leader of the MDC-T and should step down immediately. Before the court proceedings, the police had already barricaded roads leading to Morgan Tsvangirai House, the MDC-T headquarters. This indicated that they knew beforehand what the judgement would be, showing once again how the judiciary and police are used to fight ZANU-PF battles.

The same courts which ruled that the November 2017 coup was constitutional are the ones that ruled last Tuesday that Chamisa’s rise to power in his political party was unconstitutional. The double standards and hypocrisy are breathtaking.

But what is truly appalling is the fact that our ZANU-PF government had no qualms in relying on the courts to take advantage of a pandemic that is devastating the world – by using the lockdown to settle political scores. They knew that, because of the lockdown, supporters of Nelson Chamisa and the MDC would be unable to publicly protest the ruling.  

How are Zimbabweans meant to take the lockdown seriously when those who imposed it abuse it in this manner?

There have been reports of police brutality, with videos of citizens found outside their homes being severely beaten, arrested and piled up in trucks in Bulawayo after being accused of breaking lockdown laws.

Despite the announcement by the president that farmers and food providers are essential services and would not be disrupted, there have been countless documented cases of police confiscating food from traders and destroying it.

This is a country in which millions face starvation. A country in which the majority is either unemployed or underemployed. How do we begin to justify such heartless destruction of food and livelihoods?

Many Zimbabweans have no transport and have to walk to access any essential services. Police, therefore, are not meant to arrest people indiscriminately. When I went to the pharmacy, I found queues for mealie-meal all over town. People were not maintaining physical distancing and expressed desperation at the food shortages. Right now,  mealie-meal shortages are the biggest threat to the effectiveness of the lockdown.

But even this has provided an opportunity for corruption. Police, who control the queues, are accused of buying mealie-meal and reselling it at a profit on the black market. In response to the public outcry, President Mnangagwa was forced to issue a statement to instruct the police to stop preventing traders from selling and citizens from buying food. However, it does not seem to be consistently complied with.

Thanks to an insensitive government, it never rains in Zimbabwe. It only pours.

On 4 April, Zimbabweans woke up to an announcement that the government had increased the price of fuel by $3 – or 16%. The reason for the increase has not been explained.

It is inexplicable that the government would consider it wise to increase the price of fuel right in the middle of a lockdown in which economic conditions are already severely constrained.

Most Zimbabweans are all too aware that fuel is a strategic target for corruption by ZANU-PF and Sakunda Fuels which is run by Kuda Tagwirei, a close ally of both Mnangagwa and his deputy Constantino Chiwenga. Sakunda has a monopoly on importing fuel and retails it via fuel stations in which senior ZANU-PF officials reportedly have an interest.

From all the above it is quite evident that the lockdown has little or nothing to do with trying to curb the spread of Covid-19 and everything to do with the state reminding people of its “might”, while also seizing the opportunity to advance its corrupt interests. They embark on these displays of power every once in a while where police and the army use unnecessary and unjustifiable levels of force, simply because they feel people need to be reminded of who is in charge.

On Monday 6 April, the Chronicle newspaper reported that the army has been roped in to boost police in enforcing the lockdown. Judging from past experiences, this is unlikely to end well.

With regard to Covid-19’s presence in Zimbabwe, by 7 April only 349 people had been tested – 11 of them positive. People have accused the government of under-testing so as to keep the infection rate low.

The only testing centre is in the capital, Harare. And the only isolation hospital ready for handling Covid-19 is also in Harare. Reports indicate that there are nowhere near enough beds if the virus takes hold in the city.

In a country with 10 provinces, it is unacceptable to have everything located in just one. It is dangerous and negligent.

On the brighter side …

On a more upbeat note, there are efforts and initiatives by business, civil society and religious groups to respond to the threat of the virus. Also encouraging is the fact that despite their mistrust and frustration, most Zimbabweans are adhering to the lockdown. Zimbabwe has a high literacy rate and most people understand how dangerous Covid-19 is and the extent to which it could devastate us if we do not do our part.

If mealie-meal is made readily available in the shops; if vendors are taught how to observe physical distancing while trading; and if water availability improves especially in the high-density suburbs, Zimbabwe might well be able to prevent the spread of the virus.

Because of the monopoly, the government holds on information concerning Covid-19 in Zimbabwe, nobody really knows for sure exactly how big a problem it is in the country.  Going by government statistics that show no spread of the disease since the ninth case on 2 April, one might be forgiven for hoping that we have, to some extent, been spared. My hope is that the government is giving us a true reflection of the situation and that we have nothing to worry about.

If I’m wrong, nothing short of a miracle can help Zimbabwe. DM/MC

This is Part Two of a two-part series on Covid-19 in Zimbabwe by activist Thandekile Moyo. Part One can be read here.


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