Press freedom advocates in Zimbabwe have welcomed the release on bail of a reporter who is charged with stoking anti-government violence. But, they say the conditions placed on Hopewell Chin'ono violate his right to free expression.
A court in Harare granted Chin'ono the bail late Wednesday, after four failed attempts and more than a month behind bars. He has been ordered not to post anything on social media.
On Thursday, the Media Institute of Southern Africa said it welcomed the release of Hopewell Chin'ono on bail after more than six weeks at Chikurubi Maximum Prison.
Tabani Moyo, the head of the media advocacy group in Zimbabwe, said Chin’ono’s bail conditions are too restrictive.
“Hopewell is not free. He has been removed from custody but he is still being pursued through trial coming from his home. He is being stopped from performing journalism literally. When a court bars him from accessing the online platform where he practices his craft, literally what they are saying is: the medium becomes the message... So, we are saying journalism is on trial in Zimbabwe,” said Moyo.
Chin'ono was arrested on July 20 along with an opposition leader, Jacob Ngaruvhume. The two were accused of stoking violence through social media ahead of a July 31 anti-government protest in Harare.
Security forces broke up the protest before it began. The government said the protest would have exposed more people to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Critics say President Emmerson Mnangagwa is stifling dissent, following the steps of his predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe.
Doug Coltart, from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, says Chin’ono’s bail conditions curtail the journalist’s constitutional right to freedom of expression.
“Of course we are happy that our client has been granted bail," he said. "The main purpose for us was for him to get out. Of course the fact that he has been incarcerated all this time is a huge injustice. These bail conditions are extremely strict. We feel that they are overly stringent, they even do restrict his constitutional rights. That we do disagree with.”
The government says it will not comment on Chin’ono’s case ahead of his next court appearance; but it says it does not restrict the work of journalists in Zimbabwe.
“Information is power and we need our people to be informed what is happening on the ground," said Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa. "We are talking about COVID-19 preventative and precautionary measures. Because our people, yes, some may not wear their masks, but they are aware of COVID-19 because of the work which journalists have been doing out there. So we continue working as partners.”
When Mnangagwa took power in November 2017 — with the help of the army— he promised to relax tough media laws enacted under Mugabe.
Media watchdogs and rights groups say it is taking time for the reforms to materialize.