LAST May, I drove 440km from Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, to Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest city, to meet two colleagues from The New York Times.
Christina Goldbaum aand Joao Silva were flying in from South Africa for a reporting trip of several days.It would prove to be an ill-fated expedition.I was outside Bulawayo’s Joshua Mqabuko International Airport when Silva and Goldbaum landed that afternoon.
“Hello Jeff, the customs officials are not letting us in,” Goldbaum told me on WhatsApp.I had earlier picked up their accreditation cards from the Zimbabwe Media Commission. These are a work permit required for both foreign and local journalists.
I now waited outside the airport with the hard copies.
The airport officials would not accept their soft copies and a customs official escorted Silva to fetch the hard copies.
Soon after, I was called inside to see the senior immigration officer. He said he wanted to compare their cards with my own to establish their authenticity.
He then took down my personal details, including home address and phone number. I offered to give him the contact of the official from the Zimbabwe Media Commission from whom I got the cards, Thabang Farai Manhika.
He’s responsible for processing accreditation for all journalists in Zimbabwe.
My colleagues were cleared, given seven-day visas and off we went.
Three days later, at 7am, I was getting back from fetching our car from the parking lot of the Meikles Hotel in Harare when I spotted Goldbaum and Silva confidently showing the same accreditation cards to men in plain clothes.
Later, it turned out they were officials from the immigration department.
One of them then came and asked where we were going and why.
I told him we were going to see a feeding scheme for the poor, run by women in a town called Chitungwiza.
He went back to my colleagues, who were still being interviewed by two other officials.
We were then ordered to drive to the immigration headquarters in the capital where further interviews were held.
This was on a Saturday – not a working day for most government departments.
The immigration department offices looked deserted. I kept being asked about the accreditation and went as far as showing the receipts of payment.
Then a senior immigration official arrived and we were ushered to his office where he apologised for the inconvenience caused to us.
He said that because of the suspicions that had emerged about the manner in which the accreditation was obtained, he had no option but to cancel my colleagues’ visas and send them back to their countries.
Goldbaum and Silva did not argue with the order.
They booked their flights out while we were still in the office and I drove them to the airport after.
I drove back home wondering what was in the offing for me.
A few days later, I got a call and was asked to report to a compliance office so I could sign a document that the immigration officials had forgotten to have signed when they deported my colleagues.
After consulting with Goldbaum, I refused.
More than two weeks later, three men hammered at my gate.
They turned out to be detectives from Harare Central Police Station’s anti-terrorism unit, who said they wanted to interview me at their offices. I called my lawyer and refused to go in their unmarked Mercedes-Benz, driving my own car instead.
At the police station, my interrogation started well before my lawyers arrived and continued when they got there. I was taken into a dingy police cell and detained overnight.
The following day, when I was meant to appear at the magistrate’s court in the capital, I was instead driven 440km by the arresting officers to Bulawayo.
Manhika, the registrar from the media commission who had given my NYT colleagues their accreditation, was with me as co-accused.
We were caged overnight at Bulawayo Central Police Station and then charged for allegedly infringing upon Section 36 of the country’s Immigration Act.
The charge was that I had lied about the accreditation and had given authorities fake accreditation for Goldbaum and Silva.
That day, my new home became Bulawayo Prison.Once known as Grey Prison, it is an ancient stone structure that opened up as a colonial prison in 1897.
Cell 33, the receiving cage I spent the first night in, was infested with lice and had urine all over the concrete floor, on which dirty and torn-up prison blankets were strewn. It was a chilly night.
Fellow new inmates scrambled for bits of blanket. I didn’t get any. Deep in the night, one kind inmate offered me a torn piece of blanket.
At my bail hearing, the magistrate said I was a flight risk because I had connections outside the country.
She even went as far as claiming I was a threat to national security – because I worked with my deported colleagues to interview locals without the approval of the country’s minister of information.
I was stunned. Allegedly, the sovereignty of the country was at stake because of my actions!For 21 days, Bulawayo prison was my home.
I slept on the concrete floor and ate the staple forced on every Zimbabwean prisoner: plain porridge without sugar for breakfast; thick pap (maize meal) and unsalted, boiled dried spinach and vegetables for lunch; and pap again with unsalted boiled beans for dinner.
Early in my stay, a prison nurse slapped me across my face as I was moving my body a bit while she tested me for coronavirus, claiming I was wasting her time.
Eventually, I was granted bail, but the case against me has continued. Since June last year, I have travelled 7 040 kilometres, in 16 trips, to and from Bulawayo, for court dates. My trial, which only started last week on 11 January, will resume on Valentine’s Day.
The NYT is supporting me with legal and other costs.I feel fearful, anxious and often despondent because of this case hanging over me.
My family fears the most for me and gets so worried each time I go to court, unsure if I would return or get shoved in jail again.For the love of God! Media freedom is hanging on the Calvary cross in Zimbabwe!