Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Jail Fears Prompted Journalists' Flight

Correspondent says he and two of his colleagues had no option but to flee the country.
By IWPR Srdan

Valentine’s Day, February 14, saw yet another setback for journalists in Zimbabwe. Police from the country’s feared Law and Order Section raided the office used by Associated Press freelancer Angus Shaw, Jan Raath a stringer for the Times of London and me, the freelance correspondent for Bloomberg News in New York.

The police conducted two searches over two days without warrants. Hard drives were removed from computers and unencrypted without permission. In the constant company of officers, we weren’t even allowed to visit the lavatory without supervision.

The office, in Harare’s downtown Avenues District, had been used by journalists for decades. Its location has never been a secret to anyone and it was widely known among journalists as the old gentlemen’s news cooperative because, uniquely these days, it was shared by competing agencies.

Our lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, a brave protector of the press over the years, received information that Zimbabwe’s police were going to pursue charges against us at all cost. Independently of Beatrice, we were also tipped off by sources in the country’s ruling ZANU PF party who said the authorities were going to jail us.

The police eventually left the office on Monday evening, saying they would either come to our homes or summons us by phone to Harare Central Police Station. After about six hours of endless questioning and not-so-veiled threats, we jointly decided we had no option but to flee.

Earlier in the day, the police, who refused to give their names, had told Beatrice Mtetwa they did not need information to search our offices or question us.

“First we find suspects, then we get information from the suspects,” they said, laughing when Mtetwa said it was supposed to be the other way around.

Leaving the country was fraught with potential difficulties. Harare International Airport, guarded heavily by police and state security agents from the Central Intelligence Organisation, was ruled out. Instead we left by road, separately and heading for different borders at different times.

We left behind us our homes, our country, our friends and our families, losing everything in a flight for freedom in strange, new countries. The future has never seemed more uncertain.

As for the people who helped us escape, they cannot be named and their help cannot be written about. To do so would invite the certain wrath of the authorities, incarceration, beating and possibly worse. If journalists have a tough time in Zimbabwe, so too do ordinary people who have seen their fathers tortured, their wives and daughters raped and their homes burned to the ground by President Robert Mugabe’s notorious Green Bomber militias.

Our departure came just six weeks before a general election set for March 31 that will see the ruling Zanu PF pit itself against the Movement for Democratic Change. The poll has already been dubbed “the free and fear” election by residents of Harare’s overwhelmingly MDC controlled townships.

With the effective closure of the Associated Press, Bloomberg, DPA and Times bureaus, Zimbabwe’s already embattled foreign correspondents association has seen its numbers fall catastrophically. Only the tiny Reuters and AFP bureaus remain to cover an election in a country the size of California. The Zanu PF-controlled government has already made it clear that “unfriendly western nations” will be barred from sending observers and monitors.

Still, many say our forced departure was to be expected. We follow in the footsteps of others evicted even more forcefully. Long-standing old Africa hands like Andrew Meldrum of the Guardian was deported, illegally and literally by the scruff of his neck, for no apparent reason. Others like David Blair of the Telegraph saw applications for their work permits refused for no given reason.

Our predecessors, though, had all been born abroad. Angus Shaw and I were born Zimbabweans. We were educated and brought up there and had lived almost our entire lives in the country. Meanwhile Jan Raath, born in neighbouring South Africa, had made Zimbabwe his home over 30 years ago and remains a Zimbabwean citizen. But birthright and citizenship counted for little on Valentine’s Day 2005.

Others have asked why we did not remain to fight the system, why we fled. The truth is that we could not fight. During the last five years of political upheaval in Zimbabwe, all three of us have witnessed brutality the country has not seen since the 1970s bush war that ravaged then-Rhodesia. For the lonely individual, the massed Zanu PF forces of militias, police, spy agencies, informers and soldiers is unbeatable. We had to escape because the option was a disease ridden prison cell, possible torture and almost certain beating and humiliation.

Uppermost in my mind was the almost nine-month incarceration of Mugabe’s own finance minister, Chris Kureneri. He has been charged, but not tried for, the very same “economic crimes” the police levelled at us. If Mugabe is prepared to let his own minister rot in prison, what might he charge us with - spying, working as “illegal journalists”, publishing information likely to be prejudicial to the security of the state and economic crimes before us?

Brian Latham has for the time being sought refuge in London.