THE arrest of Zimbabwe Independent editor Vincent Kahiya and news editor Constantine Chimakure has been roundly condemned locally and abroad as an affront to freedom of expression, undermining the inclusive government agreement signed last year.
Kahiya and Chimakure were arrested on Monday for allegedly publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the state and appeared in court on Tuesday where they were released on bail.
Deputy Information minister Jameson Timba on Tuesday condemned the arrest of the veteran journalists.
Updating journalists in Harare on the all-stakeholders media conference held in Kariba at the weekend, Timba said resolutions of the conference were eclipsed by the arrest of Kahiya and Chimakure.
â€œI took an oath of office to uphold the law of this country. But I did not agree to laws that inhibit the work of journalists,â€ Timba said at the Quill Club, a meeting place for journalists. â€œI condemn the arrests of these journalists in the course of doing their work. That is an affront to free speech and such laws must be reviewed.â€
The Kariba media conference was boycotted by various sections of the media in protest at last weekâ€™s re-detention of former television news anchor Jestina Mukoko and the long incarceration of freelance journalist Shadreck Manyere.
Kahiya and Chimakure were arrested over a story published last week that named police and security agents who were allegedly involved in the abduction of rights activists and supporters of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangiraiâ€™s MDC.
The two were charged with publishing falsehoods prejudicial to the state and of undermining public confidence in the police.
The state alleges the story wrongly identified agents and police officers named in court papers as abductors when they were in fact state witnesses.
The story, titled â€œCIO, police role in activistsâ€™ abduction revealedâ€, said the agentsâ€™ names were on notices of indictment for trial served on some of the activists last week. According to the story, the notices revealed that the activists were either in the custody of the CIO or police during the period they were reported missing.
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) said they were outraged by the arrest and detention of Chimakure and Kahiya.
â€œThe arrest and detention of the journalists is, in the considered view of ZLHR, unjustifiable and unsustainable,â€ the lawyers said. â€œThe article on which the charges appear to be based merely reported on information contained in indictment papers which had been placed before the court by the office of the Attorney-General and which are now a matter of public record. It beggars belief that they are now being prosecuted for allegedly publishing falsehoods.â€
The arrest came hot on the heels of an all-stakeholdersâ€™ media conference where it was agreed that repressive laws should be repealed.
â€œIt (the arrest) is also yet another slap in the face for the inclusive government which, in the provisions of the inter-party political agreement, has placed emphasis on the need for media reform, freedom of expression and access to information, as well as the security of persons,â€ the ZLHR said.
The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) said the government had scored an own goal by arresting the scribes.
â€œIn view of ongoing attempts to rebrand the country in order to attract investment and tourism, the latest move amounts to a spectacular own goal,â€ said ZUJ secretary-general Foster Dongozi. â€œWe are actually shocked that at a time when we are making efforts to reform media laws, police take such punitive measures against journalists,â€ he said.
â€œWe are amazed by this behaviour by the authorities. It makes us wonder if government is serious in engaging media stakeholders or maybe they are trying to buy time.â€
Under the global political agreement signed last September between President Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, the inclusive government should embark on reforms to create an open media environment.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) said the arrests were unacceptable and a clear indication that government was yet to change its hostile attitude towards the press.
Reporters Without Borders said the arrests of journalists represented continuing police brutality. The journalists were freed on bail after being held for 24 hours.
â€œZimbabwean journalists continue to be the victims of police brutality and judicial abuses,â€ Reporters Without Borders said â€œWe again appeal to the authorities to stop these practices.â€
The detention of Kahiya and Chimakure came at a time when the editor of the Sunday News, Brezhnev Malaba, and reporter Nduduzo Tshuma were facing criminal defamation charges for publishing a story that implicated the police in a corruption scam involving grain.
Meanwhile, freelance photographer Shadreck Manyere, former aide to Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai Gandhi Mudzingwa, and MDC-T security director Kisimusi Dhlamini were granted bail on Wednesday after spending a long period in custody.
High Court judge, Justice November Mtshiya ordered the trio to deposit US$1 000 bail each, report once every Friday at Mabelreign police station and to continue residing at their last given addresses.
They were further ordered not to interfere with the investigations and state witnesses.
The trio faces allegations of bombing two Harare police stations, a railway line and a bridge in Norton between August and November last year.
BY CHRIS MURONZI