I wrote a few weeks ago about the risk that journalists in Zimbabwe take in reporting the events inside that unhappy country to the rest of the world. Referring to the photographer who took pictures of Morgan Tsvangarai emerging from the Harare courthouse, his head part-shaven and his eye badly swollen, I wrote:
Reporting comes from Zimbabwean reporters who clandestinely pass information to newspapers and agencies outside the country – they do so at great personal risk. The photo above was taken by Desmond Kwande, a Zimbabwean photographer who’s been arrested and harassed for documenting images of the struggle for freedom in Zimbabwe. Take a good close look – the risks Kwande is taking in bringing this photo to AFP boggle my mind.
I’m sad to report a tragic reminder of just how dangerous journalism in Zimbabwe can be. Edward Chikomba, a freelance cameraman, who frequently worked for state-controlled ZBC (the sole terrestrial television network in Zimbabwe) has been found beaten to death on a roadside 50km outside of Harare. Chikomba is believed to be one of the cameramen who shot footage of Morgan Tsvangarai emerging from the courthouse showing evidence of his injuries while in police custody for Mighty Movies Zimbabwe, a production company that sells footage to international broadcasters.
Chikomba was seized by five armed men driving a 4×4 while drinking in a pub near his home in Glen View. The question being asked by observers in Zimbabwe is whether he was beaten to death for being an MDC activist (possibly a “branch chairman” in the MDC structure) or for smuggling footage out of the country. It’s a good bet that his journalistic activities were a major factor in his death as Zimbabwe is in the middle of a sometimes violent crackdown on independent journalism. Gift Phiri of The Zimbabwean has been in custody since April 1st, charged with practicing journalism illegally. Luke Tamborinyoka, former editor of the defunct Daily News, has been hospitalized under court orders since March 30th, after losing consciousness during his trial – he’d been arrested in the March 28 raid on MDC headquarters and severely beaten in police custody.
Al Jazeera is one of the networks that uses footage from Mighty Movies Zimbabwe. The topic of journalist safety was the subject of a panel at the Al Jazeera Forum, where both Rodney Pinter and Frank Smyth made the point that the majority of journalists die covering countries that are not at war, and that the largest cause of journalist death is government violence: precisely the circumstances of Edward Chikomba’s death.
What’s the responsibility of a company like Al Jazeera in a situation like this one? When does the network decide that accepting footage, like the footage of Tsvangarai, presents such an unacceptable risk to a cameraman that it turns the footage down? It’s worth remembering that this footage may well be the key factor in turning public opinion so strongly against Mugabe that Southern African nations are beginning to actively work for regime change in Zimbabwe. Let’s hope that a more representative, less violent government is one of the long-term consequences of Chikomba’s bravery and his unneccesary, unforgiveable death.