In addition, violence and logistical shortcomings have left hordes of outreach members stranded. The constitution-making project, a key component of Zimbabwe’s agreed but unimplemented democratic reforms, has endured a two-week start of horror.
Copac’s decision this week to stop journalists from reporting on the public’s contributions during official outreach hearings has reinforced suspicion that the coalition government could manipulate the constitution-making process.
Journalists’ unions say Copac’s decision to muzzle the media smells of an attempt by coalition government partners to forge a deal that could result in a negotiated settlement of cornered politicians.
Zimbabwe Journalists for Human Rights (ZJHR), a grouping of scribes formed to fight for reporters’ rights and security at the height of the State’s often violent onslaught on the media, described the move to silence the media as “repressive and typical of agents of political parties hell-bent on excluding the media from its activities to escape public scrutiny and accountability”.
Dumisani Muleya, ZJHR spokesman, said his group viewed the ongoing constitution-making process as worse than any of the previous efforts the country has had in the past.
“We demand that Copac operates in an open and transparent manner. This actually highlights the grave concerns we have been having about this flawed and opaque constitution-making process. It is an opaque body driven by narrow and partisan party political interests as opposed to the public interest,” said Muleya.
Foster Dongozi, elected secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists at a disputed congress earlier this year, said his organisation would take up the matter with Copac.
“We believe a process such as the crafting of a constitution should withstand any test of credibility and that can only be achieved if the process is made as transparently as possible. Allowing the media to act as the public’s eyes and ears is the surest way of achieving transparency,” said Dongozi.
The treatment of journalists covering the outreach programme is turning out to be reminiscent of the old days preceding the formation of the coalition government.
Police detained two Mutare-based journalists, Sydney Saize and Chengetai Murimwa, who were conducting their professional duties of covering the outreach in Mutare South. Saize and Murimwa were released after two hours of interrogation. They say they now fear for their security after police took down their residential addresses, ID numbers and vehicle details.
This same week, MPs from both Zanu PF and its coalition partner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T party, drove off a news crew of photo journalists in Marondera on Monday. The journalists left without footage, leaving unions to question the credibility of the process given the secrecy surrounding it.
Problems affecting the process continued this week.
Outreach team members for Matabeleland North were yet to start consultative meetings in Lupane and other areas in the province as they were still holed up at Hwange Safari Lodge.
Villagers in Lupane told the Zimbabwe Independent on Wednesday that no single meeting had taken place so far.
“We heard that Copac members are at Hwange Safari Lodge where they are still undergoing training on how to approach villagers and how to use equipment,” said a Kusile Rural District council official.
In Gwai, villagers said they were yet to be informed on the venues and dates for the meetings.
In interviews this week, villagers here said Zanu PF activists, who had been holding meetings in the area had moved to a door-to-door campaign coaching villagers on what to say during outreach hearings. The villagers said the activists warned them that they would use footage captured by Copac cameras to witch-hunt those who would sway from the party position.
Civil society groups have been reporting regular cases of violence, intimidation and disruptions since the outreach started.
Police, which had promised 350 officers, five per outreach team prior to the start of the process, had failed to deploy resulting in rowdy gangs which rights activists and groups claim are supporters of President Robert Mugabe’s party disrupting meetings. These developments have confirmed rights groups monitoring the situation and media‘s concern of slack security.
Police commanders Innocent Matibiri and Faustino Mazango told the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Defence and Home Affairs in May that they could not guarantee security for the outreach programme because of resource shortages.
This was after the Constitutional Parliamentary Committee (Copac) refused to pay US$3 million demanded by the law enforcement agents for outreach expenses. Police later reluctantly agreed to provide security, and reduced manpower from 1 000 to 350 officers.
Nqobile Bhebhe/Farai Mutsaka