NEAL CONAN, host:
In a country where journalists have been thrown into prison for even writing about the government, one woman stands out for her determination to protect the freedom of the press. Beatrice Mtetwa is a human rights lawyer who spent years defending journalists in her country, Zimbabwe. She's won acquittals for both foreign and Zimbabwean journalists facing criminal charges under her country's restrictive media laws. Next week, Ms. Mtetwa will receive one of the International Press Freedom Awards given every year by the Committee to Protect Journalists. And she joins us here in Studio 3A.
Ms. BEATRICE MTETWA (Human Rights Lawyer; International Press Freedom Award Recipient): Thank you very much.
CONAN: And thanks for being with us on the program. Tell us a little bit about the media environment in Zimbabwe. What are journalists allowed to report on, and what are they not allowed to report on?
Ms. MTETWA: The media environment in Zimbabwe has considerably degenerated in the past four to five years. Firstly, journalists are now required by law to register with the state-appointed media commission, and if you are not accredited by that commission you are not allowed to practice. Media publishers are also required to register with the state-appointed media commission. If they are not registered, they cannot continue publishing. The obvious effect of that is that, you know, if you do have the equipment, you already are an established company, and the media commission decides not to register you, you are basically out of business and cannot publish your newspaper. And it means that a journalist who has been practicing, once they are denied accreditation, they cannot continue publishing. And this applies mainly to independent media practitioners. And what the effect of it is right now is that we virtually have no independent media anymore in Zimbabwe.
CONAN: And what I've read in Zimbabwe is that there's a fair amount of intimidation, even if a lot of journalists are not necessarily convicted--that people are essentially harassed by the government, thrown in jail for a couple of days, and then charges are later dropped.
Ms. MTETWA: That is quite correct. We've had a number of journalists locked up, arrested--locked up for a couple of days, taken to court, and at the end of the day nothing ever comes out of, say, those arrests. So the arrest and detention has been used more to punish than because there is a belief that there is a criminal offense. And naturally, that has a chilling effect that journalists will start self-censoring, or not writing stories that they think might result in them being arrested and locked up and/or tortured, as happened with some journalists in the past.
CONAN: Couple of days in jail doesn't sound so bad.
Ms. MTETWA: It doesn't sound so bad at all if you ought to be in jail, but freedom is one of the most precious rights, as you well know, and to be thrown in jail even for 10 minutes when you ought not to be in jail is, obviously, completely unacceptable. But those who are familiar with Zimbabwean jails will know that a couple of days in Zimbabwean jail could very well be a sentence in that you don't know what you will come out of when you are in that jail. One of the two journalists who were arrested in April, when he came out of jail in Zimbabwe, he had actually to be hospitalized for a number of weeks when he got back to the United Kingdom because of the fever that he caught from being beaten by the bugs in jail.
So it isn't simply just a couple of days in jail. It can have serious consequences. And, of course, it will affect your reporting at the end of the day.
CONAN: Yes. I guess that's the point. You were talking about the situation you were describing for domestic journalists. Foreign journalists, at this point, aren't even allowed to work in Zimbabwe.
Ms. MTETWA: Yes. We currently do not have any foreign correspondents, no foreign journalists, for the simple reason that the government will not accredit them at all. Where we have had a few local journalists accredited to report on behalf of foreign media, what has happened is that they have had conditions imposed on their accreditation by requiring them to do their work through a government-owned media house. So you find that you will do a story for your foreign media, and that will have to be edited by a local government media house.
CONAN: Which is a difficult way to work. One of the--one of your most famous cases, you literally ran onto the airport runway to prevent the deportation of a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, Andrew Meldrum, in 2003. Tell us a little bit about that.
Ms. MTETWA: Well, Andrew Meldrum was the first journalist to be charged under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which was promulgated and brought into effect in February 2002. He was charged with publishing falsehoods. He was, thankfully, acquitted, and attempts to deport him soon after he was acquitted--because immigration officials were waiting outside court and grabbed him as soon as he had been acquitted. We were able to go to court to get an order to stop him being deported, and we challenged the deportation order. Despite the fact that there was a court order saying he shouldn't be deported--he had lived in Zimbabwe for years prior to that; he had permanent residence, he had a home, he had a wife, he had pets--the state decided in May 2003 that they wanted him out, and they called him to go to the Immigration department.
After a couple of days of dodging them, we finally decided that we would go to the immigration office. We had been assured that they would not disrespect the court order, but when we got to the Immigration department, he basically was grabbed and thrown into a car, his face covered, and he was driven to a destination that we didn't know. I was able to immediately to go court and make an oral application for an order that they produce him to court and that they not deport him in the interim. We served that at the Immigration department. They did not comply. We served that order because it required that he be produced within a few hours. And in the evening, when it became apparent that they were in defiance of the court order, we got another order requiring the immigration officers to go before the judge and produce him, or, if they are unable to produce him, for them to be locked up until they produced him.
They came to court and said they were fetching him, and they left and never quite came back with him. We got another order from the court; ride to the airport, because we had received information that he was being held at the airport, and just as we arrived, they--we saw him being taken through the last round of the immigration procedures, and that is when we basically ran to try and stop the captain. We wanted to serve the order on the captain of the plane in order to stop him deporting him, but we were unable to do so.
CONAN: We're speaking with Beatrice Mtetwa, Zimbabwean lawyer and winner of one of this year's press freedom prizes from the Committee to Protect Journalists. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
In a situation that--like what you've been describing, which is a house of mirrors, legally--this is--clearly, people are determined to get people one way or the other, whatever legalisms they have to go through. It must be incredibly frustrating as a lawyer to try to work inside that system.
Ms. MTETWA: It is, indeed, incredibly frustrating, because firstly they--when your client is arrested, you do not know where they are. You will go to the regular department you know arrested people for that particular offense, and everybody will stay in absolute ignorance as to their whereabouts. They will even deny that the person has been arrested. So you have to devise ways of finding out where they might be holding your client. And if you do find out where your client is, you will be denied access to the client, using various means. The officer holding your client will say, `Oh, I have no authority. My job is simply to hold the person. You only--you have to get the arresting officer to give you authority to see your client.' `Who is the arresting officer?' `Oh, I don't know. All I know is that my job is to keep this person.' That's just one way, long before you get to court.
CONAN: You were talking about how journalist are intimidated. There have been attempts to intimidate you, as well.
Ms. MTETWA: Well, there are attempts to intimidate all human rights defenders in Zimbabwe, and we've formed alliances here and there, but it is not always possible to have people with you because some of the arrests happen at night, and if you have to go out on your own at night it can get dangerous, and you always try to get one or two police to come along with you. And that attempt to intimidate will always be there.
CONAN: We just have a minute left, but I did want to ask you--in a country where we're deluged with media, we sometimes forget how important free media can be. Why is it so important to you in Zimbabwe?
Ms. MTETWA: I do not believe that one can talk of any democracy without the media, because basically, the media, as far as I'm concerned, is a cornerstone of democracy. Information is relayed through the media. Rights are informed to people through the media. Excesses are reported by the media. Basically, change can never be brought around without the media playing a huge role in ensuring that, you know, people enjoy basic rights.
CONAN: Beatrice Mtetwa, again, congratulations as one of the recipients of the 2000 International Press Freedom prize, which will be presented by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. MTETWA: Thank you for inviting me.
CONAN: Tomorrow it's "Science Friday," and Ira Flatow will be here. Next week, a guest co-host, Liane Hansen, will join us.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.