Ndlovu was arrested on Wednesday last week and was charged under Section 96 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act for defaming the police over a story alleging police scrapped exams to promote officers and were roping in war veterans and retired officers to fill senior posts.
He was brought to court on Monday where a Bulawayo magistrate granted him $100 bail but the state invoked Section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act to bar him from enjoying his freedom.
But journalists’ organisations believe Ndlovu’s detention at the notorious Khami Maximum Security Prison just outside Bulawayo is meant to intimidate media practitioners from reporting ills in government departments, especially those controlled by Zanu PF appointees.
Even the magistrate Sibongile Msipa said the state’s denial for Ndlovu’s release was not justified, arguing that the state failed to give convincing reasons in opposing the journalist’s bail.
“The state has failed to give enough reasons why the accused should be denied bail,” she said in her bail ruling on Monday. “The other issue raised by the state that he was facing a serious offence; that alone could not be good enough to warrant denying accused bail without being accompanied by other cogent reasons.”
Journalists said the state’s invoking of Section 121 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act showed that the state was out to “fix” reporters particularly from the private media.
There are reporters from the state media who are facing criminal defamation charges but they were never incarcerated, suggesting that the state was determined to silence investigative journalists from the private media, said the journalists.
International journalists’ organisations have also demanded the release of Ndlovu and the need to guarantee press freedom. The Norwegian Journalists Association (NUJ) petitioned Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai to order Ndlovu’s immediate release.
Zimbabwe Union of Journalists president Dumisani Sibanda said the union was dismayed by the attempt to muzzle the press by the state.
He said the arrest of the Standard journalist when Mugabe has indicated that he wants elections by mid next year was testimony that the 86 year old leader was determined to silence the private media.
Sibanda said the criminal defamation charges were archaic and primitive, adding that the pieces of legislation should be repealed to promote media freedom in Zimbabwe.
“The laws are contrary to the basic tenets of democracy. We fear that the arrest is meant to intimidate investigative journalists; it’s absurd,” he said.
He said Mugabe and his security chiefs claimed that there was democracy in Zimbabwe but the arrest and prolonged incarceration indicated that a lot was needed to achieve press freedom.
Sibanda said the police, like any other government workers, were civil servants who survive from taxpayers’ money and were, therefore, should not be spared public scrutiny.
“We wonder why and how a government department can be defamed when the public officials are supposed to be accountable to the general citizenry. Ndlovu’s detention typifies the highest level of dictatorship by those that don’t want press freedom,” he said.
ZUJ is planning a demonstration in Bulawayo on Monday against Ndlovu’s detention but the police are reluctant to grant permission to journalists to march through the streets.
Police told ZUJ, according to Sibanda, that they do not have manpower to escort journalists during the march.
Sibanda, however, said the arrest of Ndlovu strengthened reporters from the private media to continue exposing the ills of the society.
“Journalists will not be moved by police intimidation. We shall remain bold and unflinching because we are the watchdogs of the society,” said the ZUJ president.
From 2000, several journalists labelled as the so-called “enemies of the state” have been arrested and detained. The arrests, analysts said, were a violation of promotion of press freedom in a country purported to be enjoying democracy as a result of the liberation struggle.
Media watchdog, Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) also condemned the arrest of Ndlovu, saying the state was making an example in an attempt to instill fear among journalists in the face of 2011 elections.
Misa Zimbabwe chairman Loughty Dube said the state must stop criminalising the journalism profession.
“Ndlovu reported the story within his professional mandate. When the state starts arresting reporters, then it’s crystal clear that they want to stifle press freedom,” he said.
“We are sure that the arrest at a time when there is election talk is meant to force journalists from being sceptical about certain stories. This is travesty of justice and unacceptable.”
Legal experts say it was legally impossible for a state organ like the police to be defamed.
From 2000, critics accused Mugabe’s regime of stifling media freedom by using draconian pieces of legislation such as the defamation laws and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) to silence journalists.
Under the inclusive government, the parties which are signatory to the Global Political Agreement, prioritised media reforms.
London-based journalist, Gilbert Nyambabvu said the potential effect of what is being done to Ndlovu and investigative journalism in general ahead of a crucial election was a shame.
He said: “The fact is journalists working in the privately-owned media will rightly see their options as coming down to the question of whether they want to be ‘free’ cowards or incarcerated ‘heroes’.”
“It is difficult to argue an abuse of process in this case because our convoluted legal system does provide for the sort of appeal such as the state has filed and the accused is obliged to remain in custody until the said appeal is heard.”