- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

Out of Zimbabwe

We published a front-page story on Monday from a reporter in Zimbabwe without any byline. This is not something we do lightly — we like to give our readers as much information as possible to help them judge the veracity of our articles.

But there are a handful of nations — Burma is another — where any reporter who writes honestly about what he sees risks being expelled and prevented from ever entering the country again.

Reporters who wish to cover these countries find other ways to do their jobs, such as coming into the countries as tourists and working under assumed names.

This gives them the freedom to write honestly but also carries risks: London Daily Telegraph correspondent Toby Harnden and photographer Julian Simmons spent two weeks in a Zimbabwe jail cell before being acquitted last week on charges of trying to report on the recent elections without proper accreditation.

The author of Monday’s article also had a few close calls, once when she was swept up in a roundup of supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) following a campaign rally.

“They arrested about 200 of us, put us in two large trucks and two pickup trucks and took us to a police station where they put us all in a central courtyard,” she explained.

“Some of the party activists in the group told me, ‘This is where they used to beat us up. That room is where they broke the ribs of Iain Kay,’” an MDC parliamentary candidate.

The reporter said she avoided detection by pretending to be a friend of one of the party activists and was released with the rest of the group.

Even more dangerous than writing for newspapers is filing for international radio, the reporter said, because the reports often can be picked up inside Zimbabwe less than an hour after they are filed. “This means they can figure out where you are and come looking for you,” she said.

Talking in code

One of the reporter’s worst moments came while trying to file a radio report from a small village where the cell phone reception was poor.

“The only place where I could get a signal was up on a nearby mountainside, so we were driving around on the mountain, pulling over here and there to try to call in my report,” she said.

“An unmarked police car was following us, probably suspicious because we kept pulling over. We would stop and they would pass and then we would drive down a side road and see them pass us again. But they never stopped us.”

Reporters in Zimbabwe assume their phone conversations are monitored, and have learned to use code even to set up an interview.

“You have to call people as if they were total strangers and say, ‘Hi, I’m a tourist and I thought perhaps you could tell me some good places to go in the town,’” our reporter said.

“Different people have different codes. I called a rural hospital at one point because I wanted to write about nutritional problems. I spoke to a doctor and said, ‘I’m a tourist and I will be passing through the area tomorrow. Can we meet for a cup of coffee?’

“In Zimbabwe they understand what you are talking about. The fear is so ingrained there that people spend their lives talking in code.”

So why do reporters subject themselves to such risks?

“There are two reasons; one that is selfish and one that isn’t,” the reporter said.

“The first is that I want to advance my career, and one way of doing that is going where other people are not willing or able.

“The second reason, why I became a journalist in the first place, is that people out there are risking their lives to stand up for what they believe in. …

“They are willing to risk everything for that and, if there is nobody there to tell their stories, who will help them? If you don’t take the risks, you let the bad guys win.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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