BRITISH journalists who fled the country last week had been made to sign a contract barring them from reporting on land reform, Gukurahundi massacres or
The four journalists assigned to make a television documentary on Zimbabwe for Britain’s Channel 4, found themselves locked up in their hotel room after their host Nicholas van Hoogstraten — a close ally of President Robert Mugabe — reported them to the police for trying to produce a negative script.
The team from Objective Productions was invited by Van Hoogstraten to “explore the country and get first-hand information about the situation”.
Zanu PF spokesperson Nathan Shamuyarira together with acting Information minister Paul Mangwana facilitated their accreditation.
It emerged this week that government agreed to allow the newsmen into the country on condition that they produce an upbeat documentary on Zimbabwe, including investment prospects. Van Hoogstraten and Shamuyarira hoped to be in control of the content of the documentary.
The conditions set by government and Van Hoogstraten included that the team does not use any archival information pertaining to land reform or anything dealing with the history of the country.
This included footage of the violent eviction of farmers or toyi-toying on occupied farms.
The idea was that the documentary would support government’s contention that all was well in Zimbabwe.
The government was angered when it was discovered that the journalists were not going to produce a favourable report.
“The government agreed that they should come but I said I must control their product,” Van Hoogstraten said in an interview this week with the Zimbabwe Independent.
“I told them that if they step out of line I would deal with them personally,” he said.
“I put an overriding clause in that contract which said the film would not have voice-overs or extraneous information about President Mugabe or the history of the country.”
Van Hoogstraten had agreed with the government that he would have control over what the team could or could not film or broadcast.
The government was also angry that the documentary would make reference to the Gukurahundi massacres in Matabeleland in which an estimated 20 000 people were killed.
Journalists from Russia, Kenya, Indonesia, and Canada have been invited to Zimbabwe on state-funded trips purportedly to report “objectively” on the Zimbabwean situation.
“I started getting irritated when during an interview with owners of a Chinese restaurant the crew started talking about the relationship between Zimbabwe and China,” Van Hoogstraten said.
“Then I saw that in their script they were also proposing to show Mugabe holding a gun. I hit the roof.”
The British mogul who claims to have been friends with Mugabe since the 1970s said after seeing the script, which had been left in his car, he went to Shamuyarira to report the matter.
“I told Shamuyarira they were crooks. They were put under house arrest.”
The four were detained in a room at the Rainbow Towers where they had been staying.
“If I had my way we would have made a case out of it and put them in prison because they were coming here with evil intent in their hearts,” Van Hoogstraten claimed.
People close to the issue said an angry Van Hoogstraten tried to force the leader of the team, Jerome Lynch, a black British barrister, to sign an admission of guilt form before locking them in the hotel room.
Van Hoogstraten denies that he locked them up at the hotel where he is a shareholder but said: “Even if I did, so what?”
The fallout led to government’s claims that Britain was preparing the ground for the renewal of sanctions in the new year. But observers note this reflects the government’s sensitivity to its growing isolation from the rest of the world rather than any serious claim that the British government controls the UK press.
“Van Hoogstraten would be the first to know that Channel 4 is hardly a pro-(British) government outfit,” a local diplomat commented.
Zimbabwe government officials have accused the visiting journalists of being intelligence officers.They eventually left the country in a hurry leaving their valuable equipment behind.