Three Zimbabwean journalists have been released on bail after they were accused of slander in their coverage of a poaching scandal. Their report implicated police officers and park rangers.
Mabasa Sasa, Brian Chitemba and Tinashe Farawo of Zimbabwe's state-owned newspaper The Sunday Mail appeared in court on Wednesday (04.11.2015) in connection with their coverage of a poaching scandal. The three journalists were arrested on Monday following a demand by police that they reveal their sources. They were set free on bail of $100 (92 euros) each and their case was adjourned until November 27, 2015.
They were investigating the cyanide poisoning of at least 60 elephants since late September 2015 in the country's biggest national park, Hwange. A police assistant commissioner, park rangers, Asian business people, as well as junior officers were implicated in the story. The Sunday Mail did not publish any names.
However, the Zimbabwean police evidently still felt they were under attack. "The falsehoods have dented and tarnished the image of the [police] for no apparent reason. The story does not only affect the Zimbabwe Republic police but the entire security apparatus," police spokesperson Charity Charamba told reporters on Monday. She argued that journalists have the duty to identify the culprits and not sensationalize the matter.
Zimbabwean media representatives were appalled by the arrests. Foster Dongozi from the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists told DW that he expected the police to track down the poachers and not target journalists. "This is totally unacceptable behaviour on the part of the police. The journalists have provided leads. There is a disaster taking place in Hwange National Park," he said.
A threat to press freedom
Arrests of journalists and the raiding of media houses are a common occurrence in Zimbabwe. Just last week, three journalists were arrested for covering a planned opposition rally. This case, however, is one of the rare instances in which state media has come under the scrutiny of the authorities.
"Our worry is that the police arrested and detained the three journalists because they want them to disclose the source of the story," Nyasha Nyakunu of the Zimbabwean chapter of the independent Media Institute of Southern Africa, told DW. The arrests, he said, were unconstitutional, as Zimbabwean law provides for the confidentiality of journalists' sources. "As a law enforcement agency," he said, "[the police] should lead in terms of adhering to the law."
Muleya Mwananyanda of the rights group Amnesty International declared that this was a shocking attempt to threaten press freedom. "These attempts create an atmosphere of fear and perpetuate impunity," he said.
Conservation groups have said that as many as 300 elephants died in Hwange National Park in 2013 after poachers laced salt pans with cyanide. But the Zimbabwean government says dozens rather than hundreds were killed. Charamba said police had seized 70 elephant tusks, 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of cyanide and arrested eight people linked to poaching in the last three months.
Columbus Mavhunga contributed to this report.