Zimbabwe Harsh Terrain for Journalists

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In Zimbabwe, practicing journalism is forbidden. Reporters caught working without government permission face beatings, long prison sentences, or worse. The job becomes especially perilous when the story about the local police force, focusing on police brutality

So why do reporters like myself take the risk? Some do it for the thrill, others for the fame. Others do it because they knew Zimbabwe before it became the police state dictatorship it is today and they feel morally obligated. I do it because I know a lot of Zimbabweans. They are wonderful people, who don't have a voice to tell their stories. I also do it because I can.

Last month, my driver and I set out to cover a women's rights peace march in the center of one of the largest cities in Zimbabwe. I cannot be more specific about the location for security's sake. The group is called WOZA, which stands for Women of Zimbabwe Arise. It is one of the only organizations that still protest publicly against the current regime. Jenny Williams is its leader.

"We generally speak out directly about things that they would prefer people don't talk about. Most of our members feel that if they are going to be dying, can they not die silently?" said Williams.

She told us that the men and women who dare to join in are often beaten, arrested and tortured.

"This is a government that does not respect rights. It does not respect a mother's right to defend her children and call for a better Zimbabwe. So when we go in the street doing that, they get a little bit peeved at us," she adds

Following her advice, on the day of the protest we literally dressed for jail. It is mid-winter in Zimbabwe and freezing, and according to the WOZA women the police only allow prisoners 3 items of clothing. We made sure what we wore was as warm as possible. We also took toilet paper, because the word on the street is that there hasn't been any in jail in Zimbabwe for years.

Everything about the protest was kept secret until the last possible moment, including the location. Moments before the group began, the streets seemed completely empty. Suddenly, out of nowhere, hundreds of people assembled with signs and banners, chanting.

It was a moving scene. The marchers knew what was about to happen but they kept going and held their banners high. Within minutes Zimbabwean riot police had broken up the crowds, swinging their batons at anything that moved or breathed. Women were screaming, police were beating, and suddenly I was caught up in the mob, and beaten myself.

After it was all over they let me go, perhaps wanting to avoid an international incident. Still, I felt helpless. I couldn't go to the police and file a report for fear of being locked in jail, and I couldn't tell the embassy for fear of being thrown out the country. I could do nothing.

Some women were detained for three days, and beaten much worse than I. One woman, Rosey, told me days later that the police had beaten her on her breasts repeatedly in custody. Her breast was completely purple.

"They beat me on the breasts," she said. "Now when I breathe out, I have a stabbing pain in my chest."

She didn't have anyone to turn to, either. Even her doctor's visits had to be kept secret.

"I am not going to give up, I'm going to march," she said.

And they all keep marching. I was amazed when I learned that they had marched the following week in another part of the country.

I find myself asking: "Is it worth it for these courageous women? Does marching in the streets and getting beaten up really make that much of a difference? Will Rosey, who can barely talk because she has been beaten so badly, ever see any justice? Will I ever receive justice? Does anyone outside of Zimbabwe even care? Will someone, listening to this broadcast, be moved to do something that could lead to change in Zimbabwe? Or will one of my interview subjects be tortured by the police for daring to speak to a member of the forbidden press?"

I still don't know the answers. Perhaps history will one day tell the tales of the brave WOZA women from Zimbabwe, who dared to stand up for themselves and their children.

As for me, a forbidden journalist, I have learned some valuable lessons. Wear more clothing as padding when covering violent protests. Don't take expensive equipment to a story where I know it might be confiscated. Always keep the embassy's number in my pocket, just in case, and, most importantly, remember that what happens to my interview subjects could also happen to me. I am not exempt simply for being a journalist.

But I lived to tell the story, which is the most important part. It's a story about a place called Zimbabwe, and a group of women much braver than I could ever wish to be.

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