‘Swept under the carpet’: violence against Zimbabwe's women journalists

Women journalists in Zimbabwe have been beaten and harassed by state security. The male-dominated media largely ignores these abuses.

Sally Nyakanyanga
9 October 2017

Many journalists in Zimbabwe have experienced beatings, harassment, and detention by security forces. The constitution enshrines press freedom on paper, but in practice journalists are too often restricted and attacked whilst doing their work.

For female journalists, there is a double-edged sword, working in the media in a country that is so hostile to reporters and where gender equality can feel like a farfetched dream.

Freelance journalist Lucy Yasini says she was beaten up by police last year whilst covering youth protests that turned violent, with police throwing teargas into the crowd and demonstrators retaliating by throwing stones.

At first, Yasini said, police officers told her to run. Then, “one of them started beating me up with a button stick [extendable baton]. I could not comprehend why I was beaten even after having shown him my press card.”

Freelance journalist Anna Chibhamu was with Yasini at the protest last year. She says she was also attacked by police. “I started vomiting, feeling weak and dizzy,” she said. “What is the point of having a press card then?”

"Swept under the carpet"

Violence against Zimbabwe's women journalists is not new, says Edinah Masanga, founder of the Women's Empowerment Foundation of Southern Africa (WEFSA). “It just gets swept under the carpet, because the newsrooms where these women are working are not bringing these issues to light.”

Zimbabwe's newsrooms are overwhelmingly male-dominated, Masanga explained. They may also include perpetrators of sexual abuse among their staff. In some cases, “decision-makers within the media houses in Zimbabwe abuse their power and sexually harass their female counterparts,” she said.

Masanga recently interviewed Thelma Chikwanha, former political editor for the Daily News in Zimbabwe, for a profile on WEFSA's website. “I have been harassed and hauled before the courts just for doing my work," said Chikwanha. "I have also been threatened many times by Zimbabwean authorities and government ministers.”

“it gets swept under the carpet because the newsrooms where these women are working are not bringing these issues to light”

Yasini and Chibhamu are both single mothers, trying to eke out a living as freelance reporters. It is not an easy time to do this: the Zimbabwean economy has taken a nosedive, with poverty and unemployment widespread.

“How am I supposed to survive and look after my children?” Chibhamu asked. She said the current state of the media in Zimbabwe has forced many women journalists to pursue other careers. “We are very few women in the mainstream media and often easy targets particularly for police brutality."

'Not for the faint-hearted'

Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report on Zimbabwe notes that the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and press freedom, but journalists are often subject to arbitrary arrest, harassment, and intimidation.

According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), since January 2016 police have assaulted, harassed, arrested, or detained at least 31 journalists reporting on protests in Zimbabwe.

A Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) report notes that growing numbers of female students in media studies departments has not translated into rising women's participation in newsrooms and media houses. Women who do work in the media more often find jobs in administrative support roles, in advertising and marketing, or in human resources.

Men dominate media leadership positions. In newsrooms, they report on politics, economics and sports, while women report primarily on social issues and gender equality. Zimbabwe has the lowest proportion (25%) of female academic staff in media and journalism programmes in the region. Just 13% of workers at Zimbabwe's media houses are women.

'just 13% of workers at Zimbabwe's media houses are women'

“This has affected our career growth and development, as many [women] are forced to pursue other career options or more friendly working conditions such as consultancy,” Yasini said.

She describes journalism as not for the faint-hearted; one has to be a soldier as the playing field will never be level for women.

Yasini adds, more broadly: “as journalists we lack unity and support of each other as the attacks by the state security is common among freelance journalists and those from the independent media.”

At WEFSA, Masanga believes that empowering female journalists with skills can alter power dynamics in newsrooms. Her group is involved in a mentorship programme, which will pair Zimbabwean women reporters up with journalists from around the world, to “receive training in various area of reportage so as to strengthen their skills.”

"there is no guarantee for our safety, in fact violence is going to increase...the government is trying to muzzle the media"

As Zimbabwe heads for elections next year, Chibhamu warns: “There is no guarantee for our safety, in fact violence is going to increase...The government is trying to muzzle the media.”

Garikai Chaunza, MISA Harare province chairperson, appealed to the police: “Remember, journalists are there to continuously search for truth and honesty for the public good and the police been seen throwing teargas to citizens exercising their democratic rights; these are the social ills that as journalists we are exposing.”

Chaunza also urged journalists to speak with one voice and come together to fight police brutality. “We can earn respect from the society including the law enforcement agents if we support each other,” he said.

Masanga, a journalist herself, encourages women to make calculated and careful decisions particularly when choosing between their safety and getting a byline. She said: “It is a personal issue, I cannot prescribe a solution but I would always say safety comes first."

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