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Archive for August, 2007

Human rights in the ordinary and the extraordinary

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Friday, August 3rd, 2007 by Amanda Atwood

Amnesty International’s recent report Between a rock and a hard place – women human rights defenders at risk provides a powerful, moving account of the range of issues faced by women human rights defenders in Zimbabwe.

Using a combination of case studies, statistics, narrative, testimonials and photographs, Amnesty takes on some of the high profile instances where such women have been harassed, attacked and brutalised by the state, particularly since 2005. It recounts how Women of Zimbabwe Arise members with small children have been arrested and detained overnight, their babies also kept in custody. In November 2006, “police in Bulawayo used excessive force to disperse over 200 WOZA members participating in a peaceful protest . . . Among the injured were a woman and baby, both of whom suffered broken legs.”

It discusses the September 2006 ZCTU demonstration and the attack on trade union activists including ZCTU first Vice President Lucia Matibenga in detention, in which her eardrum was perforated. With vivid pictures, it describes the 11 March Save Zimbabwe rally in which Sekai Holland and Grace Kwinjeh, among others, were repeatedly beaten while in police custody, which resulted in them being hospitalised for weeks and eventually seeking medical treatment outside the country.

Doubtless had the report come out a few weeks later, it would also have described how, at a recent NCA demonstration in which 254 people were arrested, women with babies on their backs were ordered to put their babies on the ground so that the police could beat the mothers.

But importantly, beyond these high profile accounts, the report describes human rights violations and defence at a much more basic, local level.

As a friend aptly reminded me the other day, there are a host of ways in which human rights are lived, defended and violated each day – outside the realm of politics, laws, or elections around which so many human rights activists frame their debate. There are human rights issues in simply surviving in our current economy – the right to food, the right to water, to health, to shelter and other basic human rights which are confronted in the course of day-to-day activities by women struggling to provide for themselves and their families.

The report uses moving personal stories to convey these struggles – the ways in which women were disproportionately affected by Operation Murambatsvina, the human rights concerns around access to food and housing, and the vulnerability of female headed houses to food insecurity. A 64 year old woman who cares for her six orphaned grandchildren aged 3-18 is denied access to GMB maize by local politicians because she is suspected of being and MDC sympathiser. Irene, evicted first by the farm invasions and then by Operation Murambatsvina is kicked in the stomach by a police officer while she is participating in a WOZA demonstration at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo in August 2006, in protest of the “sunshine” currency reform. Two months pregnant, she miscarries whilst in the police cells, and is refused water with which to clean herself. Clara, a 60 year old member of the Women’s Coalition, from rural Chivi is summoned to her chief’s court and found “guilty of being disrespectful to men,” and fined a goat. She refuses to pay, and is subsequently denied access to GMB maize.

In conjunction with the report, Amnesty is promoting its webaction, urging appeals to the Chairperson of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to call on the government of Zimbabwe to end human rights violations in Zimbabwe.

Propaganda over professionalism?

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Thursday, August 2nd, 2007 by Amanda Atwood

Around 9pm on Monday 23 July, Zimbabwean journalist Abel Mutsakani was shot outside his Johannesburg home by unknown assailants, and was taken to hospital to recover. He was released several days later, but will have to live with the bullet lodged near his heart – the doctors advised it was too dangerous to remove it.

At the time, it was unclear if Mutsakani’s attack was one more unfortunate incident in South Africa’s struggle with violent crime, of if something more sinister was at play. Bev Clark shared some of City Press news editor and Zimbabwean journalist Japhet Ncube’s comments on professionalism and journalistic ethics in Zimbabwean journalism needs to look at itself. Commenting on Mutsakani’s murder, Ncube noted that most news agencies had chosen a conservative (in his view, professional) angle to the story, stating simply that the motivation for the attack, and the identity of the shooters, remained unclear. He criticised the Cross Border Association of Journalists for jumping to conclusions and labelling the attack a pre-meditated “hit” orchestrated by the Mugabe regime.

I agree with Ncube entirely. Supporting the accurate story – the well-researched and documented story – may not yield as sensational copy, but it does lend longer term respect and credibility to the publication and to the country. We don’t do ourselves any favours when we exaggerate the facts or make baseless accusations.

That old chestnut about the boy who cried wolf stays in circulation for a reason: it’s still relevant. A news agency’s credibility depends upon it finding the truth behind the rumour, analysing it, and reporting it accurately. Civil society organisations whose work includes information development and dissemination need to take on similar standards. This doesn’t mean they have to craft themselves into cold, dispassionate observers. But it does mean they need to respect the difference between being blinded by passion, and telling passionate, fact-based accounts.

So I was interested to read the CAJ response, which falls into the dichotomised “you’re either with us or against us” kind of thinking which paralyses analysis of the Zimbabwe situation. The CAJ essentially argues that Mutsakani was murdered by the government of Zimbabwe on the basis of this syllogism:

1) The government of Zimbabwe has brutalised, tortured and even murdered activists within the country for their political beliefs or activities,
2) The government of Zimbabwe has been vocal and active in its resentment of independent journalists and independent news agencies,
3) Mutsakani used to work for the Daily News, which was known as an opposition voice. When the state closed that, he moved to South Africa and started Zimonline, which regularly publishes reports which expose human rights abuses by the regime
4) The CIO is known to have agents operating in South Africa,
5) Therefore, the regime organised to have Mutsakani killed, and
6) If you disagree with this you are anti the cause of a democratic Zimbabwe and you don’t support press freedom.

CAJ’s second comment states that even more clearly – yes it might well have been “just another” criminal attack in South Africa. But because it’s unclear, and because CAJ supports media freedom in Zimbabwe and the return of Zimbabwean journalists to Zimbabwe, they have decided to blame the attack on the state – more for the propaganda spin than for any commitment to accuracy in reporting, it would seem.

Like Ncube said, it’s hard to speak about all of this without seeming callous or insensitive. And when CAJ, or someone else, comes forward with a bit more evidence, I am sure Ncube, myself, and others will dully revise our positions. In the meantime, what Ncube said in response is spot on: “That a top editor has been shot is a news story in itself, regardless of why he was shot.”

There are lessons here for all of us who work with media and information – where is the line between professionalism and spin, and how do we make sure we don’t start believing our own propaganda?

To view the full text of their exchange: