Draconian press laws and censorship in Zimbabwe: strategies for survival

Edinah
Posted February 27, 2017 from Zimbabwe

Being a journalist in Zimbabwe is a double edged sword. The profession is on the brink of collapse, there are no jobs enough to absorb thousands of journalism graduates every year and for those who get the jobs, surviving as a journalist is a precarious balancing act. You have tobalance between doing the job and staying out of prison or staying alive.

I came into the newsroom at the height of the repressive laws in Zimbabwe and when I left to join the civil society sector things had only gotten worse. I will now share my experience filming a documentarywith a delegation from *America.

Masvingo lies in the south-eastern part of Zimbabwe. *Gavin, his crew and I had been filming the whole day. We were tracking issues of child marriages and rape amongst orphaned children.

First of all getting the crew into the country was a calculated move. Their entry was not supposed to raise any suspicion or show any connection with me as I was already a vocal critic of the government and one of the many journalists who were on the radar of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO). So the delegation landed in Bulawayo instead of Harare. They were picked up by a safari tours company and I met them on the highway,between Masvingo and Bulawayo, in the thickness of the Zimbabwean forests.

Naturally, as with any repressive regime, we had to seek permission to use cameras in public places as well as to go into villages (especially in the company of 'white people').I met with three local government men to seek the said permission. They spoke arrogantly and inquired why the 'white people' from America wanted to take pictures of the villages. It was a precarious period too, just before an election. True to the saying, the guilty always run before they are chased, the men probed and probed why we were going into villages instead of tourist attraction places.

I had to think fast, I could no longer reveal that we wanted to film the child marriages scourge for which public officials are fully aware and the police donot do enough to bring perpetrators to justice.

''Erm may I speak with you in private sir,'' I said to one of the agents who asked most of the questions and thus seemed to be the one in charge.

''Yes sure.'' He agreed.

We went outside and I spoke to him while texting, ''I was a little shy to say this but one of them, the tall one, is my boyfriend and really just wants to see how people live in these parts of the world,'' I spoke with a wry look on my face, feigning shyness, like the shy African girlfriend of an American man.

The Officer giggled and his brow softened. He changed his tone, ''Oh Oh I see, you should have said that.'' his giggle was very telling; he had been taken by surprise but at the same time charmed.

''How come you searched so far couldn't you find someone here at home,'' he asked, seeming genuinely curious. The conversation was moving in the right direction; away from the true purpose of our visit to a safer territory.

I told the man I was after a better life in the developed world for which he agreed. In the meantime I texted Gavin - I'm now your girlfriend if asked.

He turned around to look at me through the dusty windows of the office we were inand I winked slightly at him and herealized what I had done. So when I got back into the room He moved closer to me andsaid, 'maybe we should do some shopping first honey'.

Yes, I said, all the while experiencing tremors of fear inside me. If we got caught out, we would all be arrested. Gavin and his crew would most likely be deported but as for me, there is no telling if I would everbe seen again. The thought of never seeing my family again was unbearable. But the work had to be done.

The men were satisfied that we were not bent on doing or finding ill in the villages so we got the permission to proceed with our journey.

While filming, we constantly erased the memory drives of the cameras and uploaded the material onto encrypted pocket hard drives which wehid in holes, beneath the earth. We would leave ordinary looking signs to guide us on the locations on our way back.

When we were done filming, we bought lots of tomatoes and vegetables in the village and hid our drives in the produce so that if we were stopped and searched - which happens frequently when you are moving with a foreign delegation - they would never find anything 'incriminating' on us.

I drove on the way back. Sometimes the police can be lenient when its a woman on the wheel and just wave you to pass without stopping at police roadblocks (this is because of their prejudices that women can't be more of one thing). So we decided why not let an 'innocent' woman drive on the way back.

We ate at fast food restaurants and I gave cues to my delegation to stop and look amazed at things that would please whoever would be watching and thus solidify the charmed boyfriend theme that we were riding on.

We survived three days of cat and mouse with authorities; me being the shy gilrfriend and Gavin being the dotting boyfriend who really was just whispering information into my ears and not kissing my cheek as the authorities would presume whenever we were in situations. And we were in many of them in those three days but in the end I stood outside Bulawayo airport and watched the plane taking off, carrying off Gavin and his crew, and the story of the plight of girls. The filmresulted in many projects being implemented and support being given to the girls who participated but I will not go into details in order to protect their identities.

In the end, I had planned and executed the trip with courage and resolve to tell the stories of girls. I made the choice to try and put in great effort to survive while at it. I cannot tell you how to hide from dictators but I can tell you that on that day, hiding my mission in plain sight helped me achieve it. It can be done. All we need is to find ways to circumvent censorship and continue to tell the stories that need to be told.

This story was submitted in response to Freedom of Voice.

Comments 4

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Jill Langhus
Feb 28, 2017
Feb 28, 2017

Hi Edinah. Thanks for sharing your story. Do you like journalism? I'm just wondering if it's worth the stress. Having said that, I'm super impressed with your story and what you achieved. I agree that the story needs to be told so that the situation can be rectified. Has the film been released? Is it on YouTube? How can you protect yourself more? Or, is it your calling to make situations as these right, being brought to the daylight to heal?

Tamarack Verrall
Mar 05, 2017
Mar 05, 2017

Dear Edinah,

Your story had me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. Because of your bravery the documented information is safely gathered and out. Your taking this on, and the brilliant ideas of how to protect the information, yourself and the crew means that we can all understand more about the dangers in journalism in your country, and speak with fact based knowledge in support of your work.

Best wishes in your continuing work, dear sister. 

Tam

Shirley Kimmayong
Mar 09, 2017
Mar 09, 2017

You are one courageous woman who thinks fast on her feet! Way to go and glad you have made it possible for those kind of stories to be shared to the outside world. 

Continue on!

Immaculate Amoit
Mar 19, 2017
Mar 19, 2017

Dear Edinah,

You are a very brave woman, most governments in developing nations tend to sweep social injustices under the rags and when courageous journalists like you highlight them, the outside world gets to know and action is taken even when you rescue a single girl no act of kindness is ever small.

Love