Zimbabwean security agencies’ assault, detention and obstruction of five journalists in less than a week, marked an escalation in the harassment of journalists by state authorities as the country prepares for elections in 2023. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), an advocacy group, says that approximately 30 journalists have been subject to such treatment in 2022. In all five incidents, the journalists were trying to cover public interest events. While an escalation in journalist harassment in the build up to elections is common in Zimbabwe, the director of MISA Zimbabwe has said that this election season is promising to be worse than usual for the media. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an NGO, described the increased violence against journalists in the country as “a serious source of concern.” In 2022, Zimbabwe fell 7 places to 37th in the Press Freedom Index, which is published annually by the NGO Reporters without Borders.
Two journalists became the first to be charged under one of the controversial cybersecurity provisions of Zimbabwe’s Data Protection Act, eight months after its enactment in December 2021. The provision amends the country’s criminal law, so as to make it illegal to transmit what it vaguely terms “false data messages intending to cause harm” and imposes heavy penalties on offenders (a prison sentence of up to five years and/or a fine of up to USD194). The prosecution of the journalists is reported to relate to their investigation of the business activities of politically connected individuals and, according to civil society, confirms their early concerns that the legislation would be used to infringe freedom of expression and the media. The development takes place against a backdrop of escalating government harassment of the media and in 2022, Zimbabwe fell seven places to 137th in the Press Freedom Index, which is published annually by the non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders.