Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono shared how he came face-to-face with the consequences of an alleged corruption scandal he helped highlight earlier this year.
Chin’ono’s trouble started when he publicised a COVID-19 procurement scandal involving multi-million dollar contracts awarded to buy supplies at inflated prices by the country’s health minister.
The outrage resulted in the sacking of the health minister who is now facing charges over the allegations.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the ruling party had called Chin’ono “unscrupulous” and accused him of tarnishing the name of the president’s family.
“I had been expecting trouble – so when eight men, some with AK-47s, arrived at my gate in an unmarked vehicle on the morning of 20 July, I was not surprised,” Chin’ono said.
After breaking a glass door in his house, Chin’ono was arrested without a warrant while he was live-streaming the event.
Chin’ono had been arrested on that same day with Jacob Ngarivhume, a political activist who had called for a peaceful protest against corruption.
They were both charged with inciting violence as Chin’onohave endorsed Ngarivhume call for a march, as the Zimbabwean constitution allows, something that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government often thwarts.
Whilst at Harare Central Remand Prison, both received a visit from Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, which told them they have upset the president’s office.
Chin’ono said that it was the beginning of his 45-day nightmare when he was sent to the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, where the convicted criminals are kept in legs irons and handcuffs if they move from their cell section.
The jail has a capacity for 1,360 prisoners, yet housed more than 2,600, and in the middle of a pandemic, prisoners had no masks, no running water or soap.
During the day the prisoners were brought in a courtyard, where 500 inmates shared only two toilets. Again there was no running water.
Chin’ono fell ill in the last week of August with a terrible fever – the prison hospital didn’t even have a paracetamol to help relieve the pain.
Chin’ono won his temporary liberty when he was granted bail on 2 September and says that he felt vindicated in his fight against corruption.
“I had been writing about the alleged looting of public funds and at Chikurubi I had seen how an institution had been starved of investment,” Chin’ono said.
“My ordeal is also a reflection of the difficulties faced by investigative journalists in Zimbabwe.”
Chin’ono said that three years since Robert Mugabe was ousted, abductions of perceived critics of the authorities have become more common.
“That is not to say there was no intimidation under Mugabe, but I was still able to report on stories without arrest, including an award-winning documentary about the 2008 post-poll violence,” he said.
At the time he was taken into custody a government spokesman said no profession was above the law, yet Chin’ono feel the intention of his arrest was to instil fear in journalists – and it seems to be succeeding.
“Recently I met a few young journalists who said they had important information they were sitting on. Their reason for failing to report it? ‘We are too afraid.’” (Source: BBC)