Monday, May 14, 2012

Zimbabwe - A risky place for photojournalists

Robin Hammond - Internationally acclaimed photojournalist

The widespread reports of systematic and escalating violations of human rights in Zimbabwe under Mugabe’s ZANU-PF regime have reached such momentous proportions that there’s even a special Wikipedia page dealing with the appalling state of affairs in that country. The violations perpetrated by the Zimbabwean government include assaults, torture, death threats, kidnappings and unlawful arrests and detentions.

The 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) requires journalists and media companies to register with the government-controlled Media and Information Commission (MIC) and gives the government powers to deny people to work as journalists. An amendment enacted in 2005 introduced prison sentences of up to two years for journalists working without accreditation. Oppositional and independent newspapers have been ordered to close by the authorities, and journalists are intimidated, arrested, and prosecuted, with the support of laws criminalizing the publication of "inaccurate" information.

Foreign journalists are regularly denied visas, and local correspondents for foreign publications have been refused accreditation and threatened with deportation. The state controls all broadcast media as well as major dailies such as The Chronicle and The Herald. The coverage is dominated by favourable portrayals of Robert Mugabe and the ZANU-PF party and attacks on government critics. According to Freedom House, the government also monitors e-mail content. Source

Robin Hammond (36), an internationally acclaimed freelance photojournalist, who was arrested on April 16 near the South African border, has been released after spending 25 days of "hell" in the local jails of Zimbabwe. He was working for Britain's Sunday Times at the time, on a story about irregular migration between Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Hammond is best known for his work on human rights and environmental issues. He is originally from New Zealand and lived in South Africa, but has been commissioned in over 50 countries. He has been honoured with numerous awards and commendations, including, among others, an Amnesty International award for photos of child soldiers in Sudan. His work has also been show cased around the world in numerous exhibitions, and has also appeared in international publications.

The Sunday Times reported that during his 25 days in two of Zimbabwe's most notorious prisons he was shackled, strip-searched and given cattle feed.

He shared a cell measuring 4.5m by 9m with 38 other prisoners, each shivering under filthy, lice-infested blankets, with an open hole in the floor for a lavatory.

"It was as if I was in one of my own photographs," he said.

He was released last week and is now recovering at his home in Paris.

He said he did not seek accreditation to enter Zimbabwe because he feared he would be detained.

When he was arrested near the South African border he should have been immediately deported but instead police tried to force him to admit he was operating illegally as a journalist.

"When they interrogated me they made me squat on the ground. At one point they beat up a young man in front of me. They beat him so hard the broom they were using on his back broke in two. All they wanted to do was break your spirit."

“They towered over me and screamed that no one could hear me. During one really bad interrogation, nine men shouted at me at a time. They were trying to break not just me but everyone in there.”

While in jail he sneaked a note out through his lawyer asking his friends and girlfriend to change his online footprint to obscure the fact that he was a photojournalist, Hammond told the newspaper.

“I was at the mercy of a system where laws are bent to fit politics and human rights are regularly disregarded,” he said.

Sourced from: Mail and Guardian

Incidentally, Radio VOP (Voice Of The People) published details of an earlier arrest in Zimbabwe, on 7 March 2012. This report also mentions that Hammond had his passport stolen on Saturday 25 February at Sakubva Stadium where he attended President Robert Mugabe’s birthday commemorations. More details here.

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