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Editor’s Memo

Not over yet

Iden Wetherell

FIRST of all let me disclose an interest: Andy Meldrum is a good friend as well as a colleague. I have known him for 23 years, in fa

ct since he first set foot in Zimbabwe as a bright-eyed young reporter seeking fame if not fortune in the competitive world of journalism.

He has certainly found that now. The government of President Robert Mugabe, signalling to the world its contempt for its own judiciary, has added Meldrum’s name to the rollcall of foreign correspondents evicted for reporting unpalatable home truths about the malignant regime that tyrannises this once-promising nation.

Andy was abducted by state agents from the Immigration department in Harare on Friday, May 16, roughly manhandled into a vehicle, and with his jacket pulled over his head taken to a basement at Harare airport where he was held incommunicado before being placed aboard an Air Zimbabwe flight to London the same evening.

This episode reveals the mendacity and complicity of a number of public officials who evidently see their first duty as to the lawless cabal around Mugabe rather than the public they are paid to serve.

Chief Immigration Officer Elasto Mugwadi gave an undertaking to Andy’s lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa that Andy would not be seized and deported if he reported to the Immigration department as requested.

He gave that assurance on May 12. The prohibited immigrant notice Andy was served with on May 16 had been signed on May 5. In other words Mugwadi acted in bad faith.

Furthermore, although the Immigration department had been served with Justice Hungwe’s court order on the morning of May 16 interdicting them from deporting Andy following his abduction, they refused to release him or produce him in court as instructed. A further court order that afternoon was also ignored despite an assurance from the head of the civil division in the Attorney-General’s office, Loyce Matanda-Moyo, that it would be observed.

She returned to court later that day to say she didn’t know why the Immigration officers who had attended the earlier court hearing had failed to act as instructed.

Matanda-Moyo suggested the Immigration department was awaiting instructions from Home Affairs minister, Kembo Mohadi, something she knew perfectly well was immaterial to the court order.

When she was instructed by the court that evening to accompany Mtetwa to the airport to help ensure the order was duly served, she went home saying she had to feed an infant, thus providing a crucial delay in the service of the order.

At the airport that evening Mtetwa made it clear to Immigration officials that she had a court order interdicting them from deporting Andy. The Immigration officer on duty abandoned her booth and literally ran away when she saw Mtetwa approaching. But the message was conveyed loud and clear to those escorting Andy to the plane.

Air Zimbabwe officials had earlier that day been acquainted with the court order. They were told of the consequences of acting in defiance of it.

Other airlines which had also been told of the court order duly declined to take Andy on board. Despite this, Air Zimbabwe collaborated with the state in Andy’s deportation, holding his passport during the flight to London.

As I said in my statement on May 17 as chair of the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum, the blatant defiance by the Immigration department of three court orders (four if last year’s is included), the failure of the Attorney-General’s office to act as directed, and the collusion of Air Zimbabwe in the deportation of Meldrum against his will represent a grave subversion of the rule of law and attack on the media.

Mohadi attempted to cover this naked illegality with the figleaf of national interest. That, we can safely assume, meant the protection of Mugabe’s regime from being exposed as the brutal gang of robber barons it has become.

The obvious message the gover-nment is sending here – wittingly or unwittingly – is that nobody in Zimbabwe today is safe from arbitrary arrest, illegal abduction, and deprivation of their rights.

Mtetwa has urged the court, which continues to preside over this matter, to direct the Public Service Commission to hold an inquiry into the conduct of Mugwadi and other Immigration officers who have thwarted court orders. The state auditor and comptroller-general should be ordered to deduct money from their salaries to bear the costs of the application, she says.

That may not happen under this regime, she admits. But it will certainly happen when we get a democratic government. Delinquent officials will be held accountable then for their unprofessional conduct now. They will not escape.

Let’s hear no more complaints about the bad press Zimbabwe gets abroad; that it is all a conspiracy. This was a spectacular own goal by Mugabe’s minions who are determined to get even with their detractors and will use any means to do so. It is no secret that Andy caused deep embarrassment to the regime when he was acquit-ted in the first landmark test of the vicious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act last year.

Meldrum’s abduction and deportation will simply add to the sense of terminal insecurity that now hangs palpably over this government. It is understandably worried about the truth getting out. But Meldrum’s removal certainly won’t help. Rather it will reinforce the determination of all professional journalists in Zimbabwe – as distinct from the state’s public relations officers – to go on exposing Zimbabwe’s lawless rulers as the malevolent despots they are. And when democracy and the rule of law are restored – no longer a distant prospect – all those deported under Zanu PF will be welcomed back as veterans in the battle for freedom of expression, just as those deported by the Rhodesian Front were in 1980.

It is significant that the Guardian’s Peter Niesewand was the most notable media victim of Ian Smith’s regime. There seems to be some continuity there!

Meldrum contributed to the Zimbabwe Independent and was a friend to my reporters, invariably patient and helpful. He has a home here, his wife Dolores who has worked for the betterment of so many lives in her professional field, and literally hundreds of friends. He will be missed. But I suspect his absence won’t be as long as his kidnappers had hoped.

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