Fourth Estate and Zim police: Uneasy partners
OVER 100 years ago, German sociologist Max Weber in his lecture “Politics as a Vocation” (1918), defined the state as a “human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”
Weber, like most realists, viewed the state as hegemonic and powerful. Contemporary scholars now challenge this school of thought, citing the rise in civil disobedience and in some cases terrorist attacks as well as violent extremism as case in points.
Under feudalism, no lords, including the king, could claim a monopoly over the use of violence, since their vassals promised to serve them but remained free to exercise power in their fiefdoms.
Moreover, the king and the landed nobility had to share power or compete with the Roman Catholic Church. The modern state, according to Weber, emerged by expropriating the means of political organisation and domination, including violence, and by establishing the legitimacy of its rule.
In Zimbabwe, cases of police brutality targeting journalists have been documented by pressure groups and they say ominous signs of an escalation remain present despite constitutional guarantees on the practice of the profession.
This week, Zimbabwe journalists based in the capital had two meetings with police officers commanding the metropolitan provinces. Predictably, issues relating to police brutality targeting journalists covering political gatherings stood out as a major stumbling block in normalising relations between the law enforcement agency and the media.
National police spokesperson Paul Nyathi promised to mend bridges, but maintained the realist view that law enforcers will stop at nothing in their discharge of duties.
For them, the end should always justify the means, not Immanuel Kant’s idealist approach where the means should justify the means. Compromise is the largely contested grey area for local journalists.
Journalists have often been treated as collateral as police use “minimum force” to restore public order. Media watchers say this may continue to be the case despite promises by the Zimbabwe Republic Police that scribes would execute their duties freely. This, they say, will limit the public’s access to information and will render journalism less of a public good.
“I would like to assure all journalists that they will get stories from the police despite their different media organisations…now we are engaging each other and let bygones be bygones,” Nyathi said.
“The police and the media serve the same constituency, that is the public, and I am so happy that at this meeting there are various commanders who will also teach our junior officers to work in peace with the media.
“To avoid situations where journalists come up to us saying we have been harassed by police officers, we have district police officers commanding various districts whom you can engage.”
While Nyathi says cases of police brutality targeting journalists while on duty had gone down after the “Second Republic” — a term loosely used to define the post-Robert Mugabe era — media organisations and civil society organisations have painted a different picture.
Perfect Hlongwane, the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary-general, said while media professionals welcomed the gesture extended by the police towards journalists, reported cases of harassment across the country remained worrisome.
The list of journalists either harassed in full view of the police at political rallies or by members of the force continues to grow.
Just a few months back, last October to be precise, Dunmore Mundai and Gaddaffi Wells, journalists with HStvNEWS, were on 10 October 2022 assaulted by the police in Harare’s Mbare suburb while they were working on a documentary.
The journalists had gone to Mbare to work on a documentary when they witnessed the police dispersing and assaulting vendors and proceeded to film the incident.
According to the journalists, they were caught up in the melee before being bundled into a police truck where they were detained.
They were only released after disclosing that they were journalists. Before that, freelance journalist James Jemwa lost his video camera and was assaulted while covering a Press conference condemning the abduction of exiled Zimbabwe National Students Union member Tawanda Muchehiwa.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa, a regional advocacy organisation pushing for media diversity, plurality, protection of journalists and access to information, last year issued a litany if statements condemning rising cases of reported cases of police impunity.
“We therefore urge the government of Zimbabwe through key stakeholders such as the ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Zimbabwe Media Commission, the ministry of Home Affairs, and the Zimbabwe Republic Police to come up with concrete mechanisms to curb these worrying media freedom violations,” Misa said in one of its statements.
This week, police commanders in Harare undertook to hold weekly meetings with journalists with a view to reducing brutality targeting journalists as well as help the media professionals to appreciate how the law enforcement agency operates. Time will tell whether or not this partnership will last.
But one thing the police said is journalists should scurry for cover when anti-riot police, who are known as “Black Boots”, jump out of their trucks to restore order.
Unlike the 2018 elections which were preceded by the post-Mugabe euphoria, 2023 will be different. For starters, the outcome of the last polls remains a contested arena. Lastly and probably more importantly, incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa does not want history to remember him as the leader who ruled Zimbabwe for one term.
His rival, Nelson Chamisa, on the other hand, is optimistic that the time is now.
His wafer-thin loss and lessons learnt from the last elections have given him renewed energy to live to fight another day although critics say his party may struggle to gain control of the legislature due to a lack of political structures. Chamisa however discounts such claims.
Analysts and critics say there are ominous signs that the polls may literally and figuratively cost an arm and leg for the two main political parties in the race to govern the country.