HARARE – A jailed Zimbabwean journalist on Tuesday said authorities are putting prisoners and jail guards at risk of COVID-19 by crowding him together with them despite a court order that he should be isolated because of his prior exposure to the virus.
Hopewell Chin’ono has been jailed at Chikurubi prison, known for its harsh conditions, on the outskirts of the capital, Harare, since the weekend after he was charged with publishing falsehoods. It is the third time he has been jailed there within the past five months in connection with items he posted on Twitter.
A magistrate had earlier ruled that Chin'ono should be isolated and that he should not share transport with other inmates while being taken to court. But Chin'ono said he is not being separated from others.
“I was in the truck with 22 other prisoners coming from Chikurubi who were dropped at the High Court. And yet the court ruled that I should be alone in the truck. They are violating (the order) and exposing all the other prisoners and officers to COVID-19,” said Chin’ono after climbing from the vehicle in handcuffs and leg irons.
Job Sikhala, a member of parliament for the main opposition party, the MDC Alliance, and Fadzayi Mahere, a spokesman for the party, also appeared in court Tuesday on similar charges. Sikhala, also handcuffed and in leg irons, traveled in the same prison truck as Chin’ono.
The journalist and the opposition officials were arrested after they tweeted that police had beaten an infant to death while enforcing COVID-19 lockdown rules. Police later said the information was false.
Chin’ono’s lawyers argue that the law he is being charged under was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in 2014 because it violated freedom of speech. Prosecutors argue that the law is still relevant. Magistrate Lazini Ncube said he will rule on the matter Wednesday.
Chin’ono has said he will remain in jail while challenging the law. He gave a handwritten statement to reporters on Monday, saying he will not apply for bail to highlight his resistance to the law.
“I would have totally sold out the journalism profession and the nation if I chose my immediate liberty over the media’s right to exercise its right to speak and be protected after speaking,” he said in the statement.
If convicted, Chin’ono faces a fine or up to 20 years in jail.
Critics accuse President Emmerson Mnangagwa of using arrests, detentions and prosecutions to silence dissenting voices, the same tactics used by his predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe, who was deposed in a coup in 2017.
Mnangagwa and his officials say their administration has increased freedoms and instead accuses Chin’ono, the opposition and non-governmental organizations of working with western countries to destabilize the government.