9 March 2006

Zimbabwe: Radio Voice of the People Trustees Face Trial Over Program

interview

Washington, DC — A case against the six trustees of Zimbabwe's Radio Voice of the People (VOP) will go forward after Magistrate Rebecca Takavadi ruled that the communication trust may have been broadcasting without a license, in violation of the country's strict media laws. However, VOP trustee Isabella Matambanadzo said she and her colleagues have not broken any laws. She said VOP does not do any broadcasting, but instead sends reports to Radio Netherlands, which broadcasts them from outside the country. VOP has been silenced, she said, to prevent independent coverage of events in Zimbabwe.

VOP has been off the air since December when their Harare offices were raided by police. On April 27, the trustees will return to court to find out the date of their trial. Matambanadzo spoke to AllAfrica's Margaret McElligott about the situation last week.

What happened to Radio Voice of the People on Dec. 15?

Plainclothes police officers went to the offices of Radio Voice of the People, which is located on the sixth floor of a high-rise building in Harare, and they produced a warrant of search and seizure. The warrant, according to people who saw it, said they were there to seize any broadcasting equipment that they found. So they looked around and there was no broadcasting equipment, because it's not a station in the traditional sense of a radio station.

They [said]," Where's the broadcast equipment?" People looked at them like, "Are you normal? There is no broadcasting equipment because we don't have any." So they went back to the police station, had the warrant reauthored to permit them to seize any equipment, and they came back. They took letters we had received from people who had enjoyed the programs, they took computers and they took three members of staff. All of them were women. And they held them in police custody for four days.

Then they came back and they took the director, John Masuku. He was also held in custody for four days. Now the difference is that with the members of staff, the three women who were picked up, they weren't charged. They were released without charge, but they were held for four days.

Why were they held?

They were being questioned and questioned. They say they were questioned throughout the time they were there: "Where is the equipment." "What do you do?" When John went in, he was held for four days as well -- very similar routine with the questioning. And then John was released but he was charged under Section 27 of the Broadcasting Services Act. He was released just before Christmas. We were very worried that he would be imprisoned throughout the holidays. And the holidays are important because the courts really aren't functional over the festive season and the New Year holidays, so you can't actually access justice effectively if you are in prison over the holiday period.

Now on the 26th of January, we went in, the directors (of the board of trustees of VOP). We went to the police station with our lawyer and we turned ourselves in. In between the time John had been released and the 26th of January, several things happened. The police went to the home of Arnold Tsunga, who is the director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and they arrested two members of his staff. We call it a kidnap-arrest, because basically they were looking for Arnold!

It was his driver and his gardener?

Yes. But the police alleged that these people were obscuring justice because they say the guys knew where Arnold was. They didn't know where Arnold was. Who knows where anybody is on any given day? So we call it a kidnap-arrest or a ransom arrest because they wanted to bring Arnold to the police station, not because of his work at ZLHR, but because of the work at VOP where he's one of the directors on the board of trustees.

We all went, the six of us, to the police station, and I was relatively calm, because we had a really good lawyer. Beatrice Mtetwa is without a doubt the best lawyer in the country. She knows media law inside out, but she also knows the Constitution. She knows all the statutes, but also she knows every police station in the country. She knows the people in the judiciary system and she has practiced law for a very long time. We felt confident because she was representing our cause and she was there with us.

Sometimes when you're arrested, your lawyer doesn't go with you, but she was with us all the time. Not only was Beatrice there, but other lawyers, part of the network of lawyers that do human rights work in Zimbabwe [were there too]. We were called into the CID (Criminal Investigations Department) law and order section of the police station where the detectives indicated to us that we had given them false addresses, because they'd been to our homes and looked for us and couldn't find us. In some instances, they went to addresses that are not current. They said we had caused a lot of trouble and that the Joint Operations Command, which is the most high security body in our country was very concerned about our operation, or something to that effect.

That's when I got concerned. If we're here under this charge to deal with being the policymakers of an organization that's being accused of having equipment it doesn't have, why would the security forces in Zimbabwe be interested in our case? But I didn't say anything, I just made a mental note that this is unusual. One of the officers said he was on leave, he'd been called back and he had to deal with our case, so we were making his life difficult.

But you could also see the police were a bit embarrassed at having to take us in, because they could see that at law, there is no case really, in terms of the statutes and what they were alleging we'd done. They had no equipment. So they were quite apologetic in their demeanor. Anyway, they went about the business of arresting us. We had our fingerprints taken. It was when they were taking our mug shots that I really felt like something is very wrong here. Sometimes in Zimbabwe, you get arrested and released without ever having your mug shot taken.

And you've been involved in human rights work for years.

Yes, but I've never been to that stage of having my mug shot taken. You learn the ropes. They took our mug shots, [and] then they were trying to slow the paperwork. Our lawyer [said], "Look if you're going to do this, I'm going to say the police are behaving badly, because there's no need."

In my view, perhaps what they were trying to do was delay the process so we would spend the night in the cells in lockup.

Why?

You see, you never go into the cells with your lawyer. Only prisoners go into prison cells. It's a terrain where there's no governance. Sure, there are officers of the prison, the prison warders, the police officers themselves, but it's not a site where your lawyer has much control. So maybe they were hoping that if they separated us and put us in different cells, they could get some information that they could then use to further their investigation. I think also they were upset with how their investigation had gone since the 15th of December -- now we're at the tail end of January -- when all along they were looking for us.

Then they pull out this pick-up truck to take us from the CID central police station in Harare to the court. And we [said], "You can't put us in a pick-up truck." We are respectable members of society and you're putting us in a pick-up truck? No, no no. And the officers again were like, "Look, this is the only car we have." Really, I just have to say I felt so sorry for the police officers, because it was the only motor vehicle that they had at their disposal and obviously they couldn't let us use our own cars.

So we get into this pick-up with our lawyers, which again, is something really humbling, when senior human rights lawyers get into a pick-up with you. Our lawyers [said], "We are with you." We get to the courts and the public prosecutor presents the case before the magistrate, and our lawyer [demanded] bail. Bail was set for each of us as $4 million Zimbabwe dollars. So for the six of us, if my math is right, it was $24 million. It's quite a lot of money, because teachers don?t earn that kind of salary, so if they had arrested six teachers, they would have been locked in. But because we had access to support from a lot of generous sources within Zimbabwe, we were able to pay the bail.

Before you went and turned yourself in, did you suspect that you would have to raise bail money?

Yes, because we were working with the precedent of John's case, where he had been given bail. We were hoping that would be the outcome, but we were worried that it might not be.

The bail reporting conditions were interesting. We were remanded out of custody, which means you don?t have to be in the cells, but we were required to report to the police station every Friday between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. What sent to me a signal of concern was that it wasn't to report to your nearest police station, it was to report to the police station where we had been charged, which is an inconvenience when you consider where people live and transport systems in our country, shortage of petrol. If you report to your nearest police station, you can often walk there. But if you're required to go into the city, it becomes a real journey.

Anyway, my bail conditions were set differently because I live in South Africa and our lawyer requested that I be given leave to appear before the court when they request me, rather than have to come every Friday because that would interfere with my professional work and it would be very expensive. Since then, she's been able to get us off the bail conditions, because the state was not ready with its case. At that point, she indicated that if the state was not ready at the hearing, she would apply for a dismissal of the case. [Wednesday] they went to the court and the state was not ready. The prosecutor had to deal with an issue in another court.

Yesterday they went in to the court. Two witnesses were heard, one for the state and one for the defense, but it's not the trial, it's in preparation. The magistrate said we should come back to the court on Friday for a decision, I guess on whatever was presented as evidence in the pre-trial hearings. And that's where things stand at the moment. [Since this interview, magistrate Rebecca Takavadii decided there was reasonable evidence that VOP was in violation of Zimbabwe's broadcasting laws and ruled that the case would proceed to trial.)

Why was attention turned to VOP when it did? Why December?

We understand that what happened was there was a meeting of the ruling party where certain members of the ruling party complained that residents in their constituencies could not receive local television and local radio, but they were able to tune in to VOP's one-hour broadcast. VOP only has programming for one hour: 20 minutes in Shona, 20 minutes in Ndebele and 20 minutes in English. They wanted to know how this was so, because obviously the state broadcast is an important avenue of communicating the business of government, so if something happens in Parliament, the MPs would expect to be able to hear it in their constituencies. Apparently this is what turned the attention on VOP.

Where does VOP broadcast from?

It comes through on a shortwave frequency that's carried by Radio Netherlands. It's not like we're an illegal organization or something. We are registered in the High Court of Zimbabwe as a communications trust and the High Court authorized our objectives, our mission and our vision. It's very clear that one of the things we want to do is enable communications among rural listeners in the country who don't have access to other places where they can hear things in their own languages.

Now we're being called "pirates," which is a very bizarre term for a state that is landlocked. Where does that kind of language come from? We are called tools of the imperialist West. We have no relationship with that kind of stuff. Our mandate is to work for and with Zimbabweans. I think someone just became a bit overzealous and it's quite embarrassing really, when you look at it, because there's no case.

Has there been ongoing harassment of the trustees who live in Harare? There have been reports of death threats.

Arnold received information that there was a warrant out for his head. You would need to talk to him about it, but he's really under a lot of pressure.

Are you and your colleagues worried?

Oh yeah! It's very scary when the state minister for security says the kinds of things he's said when you are just going about your business being a responsible citizen and then someone starts to say, "the net will  close." That's the language of capture! That's the language of "we are watching you and we're going to deal with you," instead of the state security minister saying, "We expect the police to do their work in terms of an investigation and then we expect the courts to do their work by way of upholding the judiciary and the statutes. And then we will know what's going on." He's speaking like he's some sort of ...some operation that may not actually be clear in terms of the mandate of government.

What do you think of your chances in court?

If you look at the history of repression of journalists in Zimbabwe, even where the courts have ruled in favor of the media, the state -- or elements within the state -- reacts adversely. The Daily News is obviously the big flagship case, but also Andrew Meldrum and how he was treated when the state deported him. Joseph Winter, who worked for the BBC, and he had to escape.

Why can't VOP get a broadcasting license?

We'd applied for one, but everybody who applied for a broadcasting license or a TV license to run a broadcasting entity was rejected. This is strange because the mandate of the broadcasting authority is to ensure plurality in terms of the airwaves, and diversity. When the broadcasting authority does not fulfill that mandate, it sends a signal that perhaps it's not a serious mandate.

What are the only legal broadcasting corporations in Zimbabwe right now?

The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

Just the radios that they have.

The radios and the one TV station.

What sources of news do Zimbabweans have that aren't controlled by the state?

It depends where you are. If you're in a position to subscribe to satellite TV, you can receive news that comes through on CNN and BBC, but that doesn't really cover domestic issues. It covers domestic issues from the international arena, so perhaps in the current context, they'll run this story that Mr. Bush has decided to extend sanctions against Zimbabwe, but they won't cover it from the opinion within the country.

You have very limited voices of citizens on the national broadcaster and within the national media because the newsmakers are predominantly government officials.

What have you heard from listeners, especially people living in rural areas or who don't speak English, about VOP being shut down?

You must understand that for the last quarter of last year, who knows? Because the only way we could say, "This is how people respond to our information," was by actually being able to phone someone like Nathan Shamuyarira, who is Zanu-PF spokesperson, and he would happily be interviewed and he would talk at length about what was happening, in English, in Shona. That, for us, was the measure by which we felt we were providing a balanced source of information. Because if you were to do a count [of] who's been speaking, you may come up with a very surprising result for a station that's been called "pirate."

In terms of regular listeners, demand for more time has been the main thing. "Why is it only 20 minutes? We want to hear more. Why aren't you on air all the time?" And we're just like, "Come on." We don't have the infrastructure and the ability.

In 2002, VOP's offices were bombed. How does that fit in with what's just happened?

Jonathan Moyo becomes Minister of Information (in mid-2000). He makes radical changes to the information landscape in Zimbabwe in terms of legislation by passing, in a very fast-tracked way, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. While this is happening, I think the international community is focused on the conditions of foreign correspondents, who under previous ministers of information, representing the same government and same ruling party, had been able to operate.

[Before] the Ministry of Information was really a facilitator of journalism. It played a big role in training programs that took place in the country. It provided incredible access to the voice of the state, be it interviews with the president.

But Jonathan Moyo's regime brought about a different kind of media environment by the establishment of the Media Information Commission. I must say, I'm very disappointed with the chairperson, Dr. [Tafataona] Mahoso. He was my professor when I was at journalism school. The irony is that this is the man who heads up the training institution, the Department of Mass Communications at the Harare Polytechnic. [He] signs the certificates of young people graduating out of journalism school, but also the certificates of professionals who were in the newsrooms, who took a year or two out to get academic qualifications, because people kept saying, "We need more professional journalists." So his school churns out all these professionals.

Now he heads up a commission where registration is such a contentious issue for Zimbabweans. For foreigners, people might say, well, "You have a protectionist policy." You want BBC here, you want them to have Zimbabwean correspondents. We know protectionism happens in the world. But for Zimbabweans, he just refuses to register journalists. The conditions are incredibly difficult. It's an expensive fee, but also the legislation is considered by some journalists to be unjust, so those who choose not to register become criminals as far as the state is concerned. It's punitive measures.

Does it make any difference what kind of reputation you have in being registered as a journalist?

No.

Does it matter what you've written in the past?

No. There's no kind of study that will show you that this kind of person will get registered and this one won't. In many ways, I think it's often dependent on the mood of the chairperson. Really, that's all I can say, because people fill the criteria and don't get registered.

[Jonathan Moyo's appointment] was in 2000, but you must remember that before this, journalists had been persecuted. Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka were writing stories; Andrew Moyse got into trouble. There are points in the history of our country where Zimbabwean journalists have been treated really badly, because you remember the nationalist, post-independence state demands patriotic media. While they complain that the West is not a balanced source of information, they demand patriotic media, whatever that is, because we never get taught what "patriotic media" is. It's weird that Dr. Mahoso was training us to report in a fair and balanced way, but now he calls journalists "lapdogs of the West."

So you have that context. And then, in that period, VOP is bombed. The bombing is never solved. Police never reached a conclusion on what had happened, who had done it, why, how. No one was apprehended. It's still a hanging case. Round about the same time the Daily News offices were also attacked. So I would say that while, to some degree, we've seen a tolerance of the media, we've certainly seen the rights to information and expression -- that are written in our constitution -- be violated by other machinery of government. So the policy is not clear.

Has anything changed since Jonathan Moyo left Zanu-PF?

If our arrests are anything to go by, they've happened in the post-Jonathan Moyo era. What can I say?

You've also worked on women's empowerment, HIV/Aids and other development issues. What does press freedom mean for the larger questions of development and human rights in Zimbabwe? Why does it matter if there's freedom of the press?

Because information is power. When citizens are able to communicate, to read and to hear, and to hear their own voices as defined by themselves, [and] when they are not edited out of the news, the media plays a fundamental role in keeping citizens informed and in soliciting the views of citizens on the state of their nation. For me, particularly things like radio, [are] an amazing source of development. We have places in the country where women are illiterate, but if they listen to the radio, they know how to treat diarrhea of their children, because the program has taught them how to make salt-and-water solution. In a country where poverty is such a big component and illiteracy is very real, media like radio allow people to develop.

Right now you're visiting the U.S. to talk about what is happening, even as the court case is going on in Zimbabwe. Are you worried at all about not being there and what that might mean, speaking out about it, and what that might mean?

We must never be afraid to speak our minds, because expression is a very important indicator of democracy. When we're able to allow people to speak and we tolerate divergent views -- I'm not saying we must agree with them or we must buy into them -- but when we permit a space in a society where people are open and able to express, and we tolerate that expression, then we have a mature democracy. That's why I'm here.

What do you think is likely to happen? What do you hope will happen and what do you fear?

I hope the court is able to see with the wisdom that we expect of them that really no crime has been committed here. If anyone is committing a crime, it is those who are the real pirates in Zimbabwe, who prevent us from enjoying media.

Is there anything else that you want people to know?

Ultimately, in terms of the architecture of the country, we need a constitution that speaks around our issues. It's very funny that our ministers say, "These are Western imperialist operators." Our constitution is inherited from Lancaster. We haven't had a process in Zimbabwe where, as citizens, we sit down and we draft and we have accepted a constitution that is ours. And that's what we need.

But also we need peaceful conditions to prevail in our country. We can't live in a society where we are afraid. I mean, here I am, in the United States. I don't know how many hours I spent on that airplane, looking, wandering, "When are we going to get there?" And I still have a lot of fear in me. Now, if the Zimbabwean ambassador hears I've been talking to the press, he's going to send a message home. When I get back, I'll be picked up at the airport. That's not a way to live.

But I'm also afraid for my family in Zimbabwe, because what I say here, in the context of the sanctions being extended, they'll say, "She went to lobby. She went to Washington to lobby." Me!

We need a less paranoid government and a government that's able to hear its citizens without hearing ghosts of the colonial period, because very often, sometimes we wonder, do they hear what we are saying, or are they hearing their own ghosts?

For me the biggest complexity of where we are is [this]: Mr. Mugabe is my freedom fighter. He can never take that away from me, that I believe he is a hero. He spent 11 years in jail for my country, as are many of the other people who are in government today. So I have major tensions about my freedom fighters being the people who represent our oppression today.

There is no language to articulate that tension. I think those are the things I am disturbed by. If we could find a way in which freedom fighters and lovers of human rights and democracy, in a post-independent, post-colonial, nationalist African state, can live side-by-side in harmony and in prosperity, that would be amazing.

RELATED:

Police Harass Radio Voice of the People Bosses 

Government Takes Radio Station Board Members to Court

VOP Boss Released On $4m Bail

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'Voice of the People' Trustees Charged With Broadcasting Without a License (press release)

Radio Voice of the People web site 

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