The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged African Union chairperson and South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to secure the release of a Zimbabwean investigative journalist, who was arrested after uncovering alleged COVID-19 shady deals, said to be linked to senior state officials in Zimbabwe, including President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s family.
In a letter signed by CPJ director William Bird, the organization described the arrest and subsequent detention of Hopwell Chin’ono as an affront to freedom of expression and media.
“We call on you as Chair of the African Union, and as the President of the Republic of South Africa to use all available mechanisms to help secure the immediate release of jailed Zimbabwean investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, and to ensure that journalists across the continent are respected as essential workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and are not jailed for their work.”
CPJ said the arrest of Chin’ono and others is a violation of the Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa adopted in 2019 by the African Union’s Commission on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights.
“It is our view that the arrest of Mr Chin’ono constitutes an egregious breach of these principles and cannot go unchallenged …”
CPJ said indications are that Chin’ono was arrested for his reporting on corruption.
“Such appalling behaviour by the Zimbabwean authorities cannot be countenanced. In the midst of the COVID19 crisis, the importance of media being allowed to do their jobs cannot be underestimated. Media fulfil an essential role both in terms of ensuring accurate fair news and information is communicated to the public, but they also have to report on wrong-doing and those who seek to use the chaos of the health crisis for their own evil ends.”
At least two journalists have died after exposure to COVID-19 in custody, including Egyptian journalist, Mohamed Monir and Honduran journalist, David Romero.
“We repeat our earlier call to African heads of state to release jailed journalists amid the COVID19 pandemic. Mr President, we applaud you for recognising the media as an essential service at the start of the strict lockdown in South Africa. The media were one of the few who were allowed to continue with their work. This was a critical step and has ensured that the public has been able to rely on news media for accurate and credible information.
“We ask that in the spirit of this recognition you work with the AU to ensure that media across the continent are recognised as an essential service and that they play a vital role in efforts to help combat the COVID-19 crisis and to maintain democracy.”
Chin’ono has been charged with “incitement to commit public violence” and “inciting the public to commit public violence”. Non-governmental organizations, Transform Zimbabwe party led by arrested leader Jacob Ngarivhume and other political parties are planning to stage a public protest against corruption and the deteriorating economic situation in Zimbabwe on July 31st.
Chin’ono was set to spend his fourth night in police custody Thursday after authorities postponed his bail hearing until Friday morning, according to one of his lawyers, Doug Coltart.
Earlier this year, CPJ and 80 other groups issued a letter to African heads of state, urging them to release all journalists held for their work amid the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 13, Egyptian reporter Monior died after contracting the coronavirus while held in pretrial detention for his work.
Reports from his Chin’ono’s lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, indicate that he was abducted from his Chisipite home in Harare.
Mnangagwa recently fired the country’s health minister following allegations of improperly securing COVID-19 essential equipment without following laid down tender procedures.
The government signed a $60 million COVID-19 deal with Drax International for the supply of COVID-19 test kits and other equipment. Delish Nguwayo, who was recently arrested and granted $50,000 bail, like former Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo.
Nguwaya was accused of misrepresenting to the government that his company was a medical firm capable of supplying huge numbers of COVID-19 medical supplies through Drax SAGL and Drax International.
Some media organizations linked him to the Mnangagwa family. The government dissociated the first family from the shady deal.
This came as several international media and human rights groups also came together on Thursday and jointly petitioned South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene and rein in his counterpart President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Global rights defenders and UN agencies have in the past few weeks raised concern over government’s abuse of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions to shrink democratic space and crackdown on dissenting voices.