Tuesday, 4 July 2006

[Interview] Conrad Nyamutata, Zimbabwean journalist

Over the past five years, the Zimbabwean government has been routinely detaining, torturing and harassing journalists as part of an on-going campaign to stop them from reporting on human rights issues, the economic crisis in Zimbabwe and the escalating opposition to President Robert G. Mugabe's rule.

Repressive legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (2002) has made it a crime to practice journalism without a government license.

At the same time, journalists who include Geoff Nyarota, Nqobile Nyathi, Lloyd Mudiwa, Basildon Peta, Caroline Gombakomba and others have been placed on a list of people whose passports are to be seized should they try to leave or enter the country. The Mugabe regime accuses them of being traitors and of threatening the country’s national interests.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa reports that in June last year, President Mugabe signed the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill, which allows journalists to be jailed for up to 20 years for publishing falsehoods. The law, among other things, prohibits the making, publicly and intentionally, of any false statement about or concerning the President or Acting President if the person knows or realises that there is a risk or possibility of engendering feelings of hostility towards or causing hatred, contempt or ridicule of him, whether in his official or personal capacity.

In addition to all this, the ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs are currently deliberating on draft regulations that will require Zimbabweans to obtain exit visas before they can be allowed to travel outside the country.

Critics say the new passport laws are aimed at immobilizing journalists, human rights activists and opposition political party leaders in order to prevent them from highlighting government repression and human rights violations. The laws have been described as a serious and unacceptable assault on people’s freedom of movement.

The Index on Censorship, (November 2005) reports that at least 90 Zimbabwean journalists, including many of the country’s most prominent reporters, now live in exile, making them one of the largest groups of exiled journalists in the world. Some of the exiled journalists left as a direct result of political persecution, others because the government’s crackdown virtually erased opportunities in the independent press.

Ambrose Musiyiwa interviewed Conrad Nyamutata, one of the journalists, via email.

How long did you work as a journalist in Zimbabwe?

I worked as journalist for about 10 years. First, for The Herald and then for The Daily News. I was a correspondent for a few other external organisations as well.

While at The Daily News, I was arrested and charged with criminal defamation; threatened by Joseph Chinotimba, the war veterans’ leader; and, our offices and printing presses were bombed.

Fortunately for me, Chinotimba accosted and attacked the wrong person at the Harare Magistrates' Court, thinking it was me.

I have no idea what became of the criminal defamation charge as I was released and told I would be called by way of summons. All this was a result of a perfectly legitimate and accurate series of stories, about [opposition political party] Movement for Democratic Change members suing President Mugabe before a court in the United States.

There were just too many happenings at The Daily News because we crossed swords with the mighty.

How did all this come about?

The Daily News was the first media institution to mount a sustained campaign against Zanu PF leadership. We took the regime head-on and without fear, on a daily basis. Our sales and readership shot up because what we were doing was unprecedented.

And of course we paid the price.

The arrests, I talked about, the beatings and the bombing. And ultimately being shut down. But as staff we remained united. Adversity created firm bonds amongst us; it was like huddling in a corner during a fierce thunderstorm and springing back into action after the storm.

What made you decide to leave the country?

I left Zimbabwe because I didn’t feel safe working in such an environment anymore.

I had just carried out an investigation, which heavily implicated the C.I.O. and the police in the bombing of the M.D.C. offices in Harare a few years back.

The trouble is that, with such a partisan or, to be more precise, complicit police, you could not feel safe or protected at all as a citizen. My informants told me it was time to go. You ignore such intelligence at your own peril.

Are you still working as a journalist?

Today, I work remotely from the media. I work for the British Red Cross' refugee support services in Leicester [in the United Kingdom].

But I must mention that I am exceedingly proud to have worked for The Daily News, which, historically, will always be a landmark in the democratisation project. That project is continuing, and I salute all who are taking it further. Zimbabwe will be free again.

Do you see yourself ever working as a journalist again?

Maybe in the long term.

I see myself back in the communications and media field, but serving the voluntary sector.

You were working on a documentary recently. How did that come about?

A few months ago, I was invited by Safe Media, a new film production company in Leicester, to produce a three-minute documentary. It was to be part of a set of four documentaries produced by refugees and asylum seekers about their own experiences in this country or related themes.

The theme of my documentary embodied a few strands: the general perception of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants by the media, local people and employers. I was challenging the how immigrants or foreign professionals now settled in the U.K. are perceived. I was poking at, not the proverbial glass ceiling, but the "glass wall" that bars such skilled persons from jobs they can perform. It challenges prejudice.

The documentary was naturally premised on my own experiences as a foreign journalist now settled in this country. It is about many other journalists, very good journalists for that matter, from abroad now living here, who have failed to secure employment in the field simply because they are foreign. It is about all skilled migrants denied top jobs in top companies because of prejudice.

I absolutely abhor the sentiment that dirty jobs should be reserved for foreigners or migrants, no matter how skilled or educated they are.

What were the other documentaries about?

One was about the controversial issue of tagging of asylum seekers, and the other was about problems encountered by a refugee/husband in reuniting with his wife. The other was about a musician Ebi, an Iranian asylum seeker. Sigli Ahmed, a Ghanaian, did the one on tagging. Boris, a Serbian did the one about Ebi and Idil (family reunion).

How are refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants perceived by the media, local people and employers in this country?

There is a deliberate misrepresentation of the refugee and asylum seeker by certain section of the local media.

For instance, there were outrageous claims in the past about asylum seekers killing the Queen's birds, the swans, and also false reports that they were eating donkeys. All were found to be untrue.

But even more serious is the wilful blurring of lines between who is an asylum seeker, a refugee, an illegal immigrant or a terrorist. The media seeks to band them together to create confusion and generate animosity against anyone who is foreign.

Why do you think this is happening and what effect is it having?

It's all about the ideological construction of the immigrant by the media. That inevitably results in racism, xenophobia and social exclusion.

Because the immigrant, whatever his status, would have been constructed as unworthy, that exclusion extends to employment; immigrants are then seen as people deserving of the lowly paid jobs. Jobs which local people do not want to do. And yet many foreigners are better educated than some local people.

This article was first published on OhmyNews International.

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