EXACTLY a year to the day after we were arrested for alleged criminal defamation against President Robert Mugabe, myself and three Zimbabwe Independent colleagues were on
Monday removed from remand after the state failed to establish a case against us.
On January 10 last year myself, then editor Iden Wetherell and news editor Vincent Kahiya were picked up and detained for two days and nights in Harare over a weekend on the orders of Information minister Jonathan Moyo. Reporter Itai Dzamara was charged subsequently.
Moyo — who was the complainant even though not personally aggrieved — had alleged we had defamed Mugabe through a story which we carried saying the president had “commandeered” an Air Zimbabwe aircraft for his holiday in the Far East.
Although the story was materially and substantially true, even by Moyo’s own tacit admission in his hysterical reaction, the minister in his wisdom or lack of the same, ordered our detention and arraignment.
Moyo even claimed the story was “blasphemous”.
But on Monday the prosecutor Ndabezinhle Moyo informed the magistrate’s court the state was now “advocating for the withdrawal of the charges” even though formal notice had not yet been given.
When we last appeared in court in October the state was ordered to set a
trial date by Monday this week or else we would be removed from remand. As it transpired, the state failed to provide a trial date and magistrate Crema Chipere duly refused to remand us further. The state said it could proceed by way of summons.
We faced two years in jail if convicted although, it must be said, there was no precedent for a custodial sentence. But part of our collective trepidation was not because we thought we had a case to answer in the first place, but simply on account of the fact that the issue had become an albatross around our necks.
It had become a monumental waste of time and money, tying us up in legal costs and diverting our energies from the newsroom — all because we had allegedly blasphemed against the president and as a result, the state argued, owed the nation an apology!
But at the same time we respected the due process of law and wanted it to take its course.
It is important to allow the judiciary to execute its mandate without trying to influence a case through newspaper articles or other forms of agitation.
This is particularly so in a country like Zimbabwe in which the rule of law has been eroded to near collapse during the current crisis that began five years ago.
The virtual breakdown of law and order was precipitated by farm invasions that started in 2000. State-sponsored invaders marched onto thousands of commercial farms, occupied farmhouses, seized and sometimes burnt crops, vandalised properties, including critical equipment, and in the process also displaced tens of thousands of farm workers.
But government irresponsibly refused to enforce the law even though the courts had ruled the invasions and attendant violent activities illegal. War veterans and their collaborators became a law unto themselves. The contagion spread across a swathe of the political landscape, leading to political killings and violent attacks against those perceived as enemies of the state or the ruling Zanu PF.
Judges were also abused and intimidated and later purged from the system. Benches were then packed with pliant appointees and eventually the judiciary, to a significant degree, was suborned.
In the meantime, the society-wide repression resulted in the independent media and journalists coming under siege, especially after Moyo came up with the repressive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which became part of the state’s armoury of lethal laws used to curtail civil liberties.
Moyo wanted to extend his grip from the already cowed state media to the independent press in a bid to control the free flow of information and draw an iron curtain around Zimbabwe.
He clearly understood that information is power, as most of the enduring dictators of history also thought.
The authoritarian regimes of the post-colonial era in Africa and Asia
understood well the relationship between control of information and political power.
In many African capitals, from Harare to Tripoli and from Khartoum to Abidjan, media tyranny still holds sway.
When the deposed Suharto regime came to power in Indonesia in 1966 through a coup, it shipped 10 000 artists, writers, trade unionists and political activists off to a barren, isolated island called Buru where it imposed total censorship.
The hostages, many of whom spent more than a decade eking out a living from the poor soil in this tropical gulag, were denied reading material and access to the tools of writing -— pens, pencils, paper, typewriters — so that they would be unable to transmit their ideas even among themselves.
“In obscure back rooms, rows of desks were lined up, their surfaces were rubbed smooth by years of diligent effort, as faceless agents of authoritarian states dutifully pored over newspapers and magazines,” one journalist wrote at the time.
“Carefully, the swarms of censors cut out ‘subversive’ articles from abroad, one by one, or bent low over ‘offensive’ captions and photographs and blacked them out by hand.”
Moyo did not perhaps go this far but he was certainly charging irretrievably in that direction. Under his tutelage, government has closed three newspapers and rendered scores of journalists jobless.
Another newspaper, the newly-formed Weekly Times, was this week given an ultimatum to show cause why it should not be closed by one of his totalitarian instruments, the Media and Information Commission.
Dozens of journalists have been arrested and subjected to malicious charges.
The charges against the Independent four were brought at the height of his reckless folly.
But as our case further showed this week, it is difficult to sustain politically-motivated and spiteful charges totally devoid of legal merit.
We sincerely hope Moyo has learnt something about his dream of an information blackout in Zimbabwe as the sun now sets on his disastrous political career.
As many people warned him, trying to snuff out press freedom — and by implication people’s right to express their views whether right or wrong — is like playing solitaire with a deck of 51 cards — you can try but you can never win!