The assault on journalists is an assault on democracy 

Chin’ono’s crime was using Twitter to criticize Zimbabwe’s government, writes Nanjala Nyabola.

As I write, Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono is locked up in a high-security prison in Harare, again. Dragged through the courtroom in leg irons, Chin’ono’s crime was using Twitter to criticize Zimbabwe’s government, apparently in breach of his bail conditions. This time he raised questions about a senior government official caught allegedly smuggling gold. Chin’ono was only released in October after another arrest for using social media to criticize the state.

Chin’ono is not the only African journalist who has suffered this kind of violence in recent months. On 10 November, Ethiopian journalist Bekalu Alamrew was arrested for his reporting on the escalating crisis in the country’s Tigray region. Towards the end of October, several Angolan journalists were beaten and detained while covering anti-government protests. In Burundi, journalists from the independent outlet Iwacu marked one year behind bars for the crime of ‘undermining state security’. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, around the world 22 journalists have been killed and 248 imprisoned so far in 2020, another shocking indicator that democracy is under threat across the globe.

The statistics from the last 10 years show that journalism remains a most dangerous profession. On aggregate the numbers of those killed has happily decreased in the last two years but arbitrary and indefinite detentions, like those endured by Chin’ono, are increasingly common: states using vague laws, particularly on new media, to intimidate and harass journalists. For digital journalists, bloggers and activists in particular, vaguely worded criminal law has become the go-to intervention for power to reclaim its position.

When the people who hold up a mirror to power are viewed as a threat, it not only speaks to the insecurities of those with power, but also to the lengths they will go to preserve it. To put it simply, when journalists start dying then so does democracy. This more longitudinal view affirms that the red flag about global democracy around the world went up years ago, even if public anxiety on this score is only just taking root.

Particularly in countries like Zimbabwe, the fact that journalists have never enjoyed peace under the current regime indicates that it was never going to depart from the military rule it replaced. In places like Kenya, government actions can look tame in comparison. Here bloggers are routinely arrested and held overnight as acts of intimidation, but again this is an indicator that the quality of the nation’s public sphere has been compromised by the interests of power.

Of course, that still leaves the question of what people can do about it. Zimbabwean activists have raised the alarm about Chin’ono, as have various other groups about different cases of arbitrary arrest and detention. One awful outcome for a political inmate is to be abandoned in prison, where states routinely resort to petty tyrannies like denying visits or physical safety just to drive their intimidation home. We must pay attention to what is happening to these people and amplify their cases so that, at the very least, democracy is not assaulted unimpeded.