Zimbabwean Journalist Earns Free Speech Award

He was arrested for journalism.

In Zimbabwe, Frank Chikowore sat in an overcrowded jail cell where feces flowed on the floor. He was denied access to his lawyers, his relatives, and even to food. He knows what it is like when government officials in a country that limits freedom of the press are not happy about the stories he writes.

"Upcoming journalists must try to promote the freedom of the press," Chikowore urged students, many of them aspiring journalists, at Syracuse University last week. "We must be courageous enough because if we bow down to submission, who will say it?"

Chikowore is a freelance journalist in Zimbabwe, a nation in southern Africa where the internationally infamous regime of President Robert Mugabe has sharply limited the freedom of the press.

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For example, in 2002, Zimbabwean authorities closed down four newspapers after the government passed a law forcing journalists to acquire expensive registration papers from the government. Just three years after the law passed, the government shut down the "Weekly Times" where Chikowore worked as a senior reporter. He now maintains a blog that provides articles and information on Zimbabwean politics.

Protecting Freedom of Speech

Last week, Chikowore was on the campus of Syracuse University to receive a 2009 Tully Center Free Speech Award. Barry Bearak, a reporter for The New York Times who works in Johannesburg, South Africa, is the other recipient of the 2009 award. Bearak was not able to attend. The award, which carries a $2,000 prize and covers travel expenses, is given annually to people whose work represents the importance of free speech.

The center, which works closely with the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, paid for Chikowore to visit Washington, D.C., where he will take in political sites and the new Newseum.

Chikowore drew a packed house. Students, faculty, and guests sat on the stairwell, on the floor, and stood in the doorway of a packed Syracuse University auditorium to hear him speak. Chikowore told the audience harrowing stories about his personal experiences, stressed the importance of forcing a change in laws to regain freedom of speech, and called student journalists to action.

Many students were stunned by his stories of how the Zimbabwean government has taken away freedom of the press.

"I was kind of shocked to hear that this type of thing still goes on," said junior Nikita Chinnery, a senior public relations and international relations major from Atlanta, Ga.

The story of one of Chikowore's incarcerations particularly resonated with students like Chinnery.

Arrested for Journalism

The story started with Chikowore's arrest on Feb. 15, 2008. Chikowore was covering the Zimbabwean elections and was covering a strike led by the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change. Government officials pounced on him, he said, taking him into custody for "practicing journalism."

Officials held him in detention for 17 days, charging him with many different crimes. Eventually, they accused him of 78 counts of attempted murder for a bus fire that had occurred earlier in the day. It was at that point he became "disturbed." He feared he might go to jail for life, leaving his wife and children without a husband and a father. He was eventually released after the state failed to prosecute him.

He fears for his freedom because he is a journalist.

"The freedom of the press is under siege in Zimbabwe and as journalists we can't operate freely," Chikowore said. "Many of us have been arrested. I have lost count of the number of times I have been arrested."

But, more than anything, Chikowore said, it is the laws of his country that must be changed if conditions are going to improve for journalists and the people of Zimbabwe.

He sharply criticized Zimbabwe's press law, called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. It requires journalists to apply for, and pay for, a government-issued journalism license. The law made it a crime to practice journalism without a license. The cost of these licenses may be as much as $50,000, he said. In a poor nation like Zimbabwe, Chikowore said, that cost severely limits the number of independent voices in the press. Major network news stations like CNN and the BBC are not allowed to have reporters on the ground in Zimbabwe, either.

"The situation in Zimbabwe will never change unless the laws change," Chikowore said. "My conscience tells me that anyone must be in a position to disseminate information without hindrance."

Changing laws in Zimbabwe will most likely be up to the sovereign people of his nation, he said. But he stressed it is also important in places like the United States to protect against laws that harm the freedom of the press, and to create international support.

Chikowore uses the Internet as a way to reach people. The blog he writes allows for him to get around some of the Zimbabwean laws and restrictions on the press, he said. He resists the term "blogger" but said he is a media reporter providing access to information. The problem, he said, that he and other Internet journalists in Zimbabwe face is that most Zimbabweans still do not have access to the Internet.

Avoiding Persecution

But Chikowore said it didn't necessarily matter how many people received the information. It is more important that they have access to it, he said. He urged students and journalists alike to strive for the freedom to publish that information without fear of persecution.

His words served as a call to action for many students, like journalism graduate student Brittni Smallwood of Somerset, N.J.

"He makes me think that when I go out to do journalism, I need to say I am not going to deliver anything but the truth. I'm not going to deliver anything but solid journalism," Smallwood said. "He makes me think that being a journalist is much more than just the title. It really is a lifestyle."

Chikowore left students with a piece of advice that he said is one of the keys to working toward freedom of speech.

"We have an important role in society and we have a responsibility to inform people of what is going on around them," Chikowore said. "So, just get your pen and tell the story."