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United Nations Says Zimbabwe Using COVID-19 to Clamp Down on Freedom of Media And Assembly

Zimbabwe Journalist Hopewell Chin'ono and Transform Zimbabwe Leader Jacob Ngarivhume
Zimbabwe Journalist Hopewell Chin'ono and Transform Zimbabwe Leader Jacob Ngarivhume

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights says it is concerned that the Zimbabwean government may be using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

In a statement, the UN High Commission for Human Rights said, “Among the latest incidents, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested on 20 July and charged with inciting public violence, after he tweeted his support for nationwide protests against government corruption and worsening economic conditions. Jacob Ngarivhume, an opposition leader who has been calling for the protests on 31 July, was also detained and similarly charged.

“Merely calling for a peaceful protest or participating in a peaceful protest are an exercise of recognized human rights. We are concerned at reports of police using force to disperse and arrest nurses and health workers for infringing lockdown restrictions as they were trying to protest for better salaries and conditions of work.”

It said this pattern of intimidation echoes the events in May when three members of the main opposition party “were arbitrarily arrested and detained for taking part in a protest. The women – Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova - alleged that state agents abducted them from the police station, tortured and sexually assaulted them. The women were then formally arrested in June, charged with participating in the protests and faking their abduction. They were recently released on bail.

“It is clear that COVID-19 has added greatly to the challenges Zimbabwe faces amid a deteriorating economy and placed a further burden on an already struggling health sector.”

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa - highlighting an increase of 600 COVID-19 cases in a week to a total of 1,713 - on Tuesday announced a series of measures that he said were necessary to curb the spread of the disease, including a dusk to dawn curfew and the curtailment and suspension of freedoms that, as he put it, Zimbabweans “have always enjoyed”.

“While recognizing the Government’s efforts to contain the pandemic, it is important to remind the authorities that any lockdown measures and restrictions should be necessary, proportionate and time-limited, and enforced humanely without resorting to unnecessary or excessive force.

“We encourage the Government to engage with civil society and other stakeholders to find sustainable solutions to grievances while ensuring that people’s rights and freedoms are protected in accordance with Zimbabwe’s human rights obligations. These include the responsibility of the State to guarantee economic, social and cultural rights.”

The United States and several other countries have expressed similar sentiments, saying the Zimbabwean government should stop intimidating journalists and political opponents.

In a tweet, Tibo Nagy, Assistant Secretary for U.S Department of State’s Bereau of African Affairs, said, “The Zimbabwean government has denied Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume their freedom while the corrupt remain free. When will the government uphold the people's constitutional rights to freedom of political expression and freedom of the press?”

In Harare, a local magistrate has finished hearing the bail application for Hopewell Chin'ono and has indicated that he will hand down his ruling later today or tomorrow.

Ngarivhume, who is organizing the July 31 anti-corruption protest, was denied bail yesterday with the state claiming that he will interfere with witnesses.