Zim Freelance Journalists Thrive On Guerrilla Journalism

His wife who has just woken up to breastfeed the baby takes the opportunity to confront him on his job. “Baba Motsi, how many times have I told you to quit this dangerous business of yours,” she says.

Fighting off the last traces of sleep, Lameck casts a puzzled look at her.

She replies, “The landlord says he did not know he was living with a sell-out.”

For five months, Lameck has kept his occupation a closely guarded secret to his landlord, a staunch Zanu (PF) supporter.

When Lameck wakes up his first port of call is an internet café at a busy shopping mall in Harare. But first he has to look over his shoulder to see if no-one is following him. He pays 1 US$ dollar to check his emails and get an update of the latest news in 30 minutes.

After his airtime time runs out, Lameck is back on the city’s pavements. Soon he stumbles upon a demonstration against sanctions by dozens of placard waving Zanu (PF) youths.

He takes out his pocket sized notebook and his small still camera. After satisfying himself he is safe, he steals a long short of the procession. But he is not so lucky.

He is immediately seized by some plain clothes policemen who accuse him of covering the demonstration “without permission”.

Lameck is not alone in this predicament. Every day, dozens of freelance journalists frequent different places to practice what is called “guerrilla journalism”.

These freelance journalists now commonly known as underground journalists have to write their stories under pseudonyms to protect themselves from police persecution. They cannot register with the Zimbabwe Media Commission to practise legally as journalists because most of them are working for exiled media which is not registered with the commission.

Those who got accreditation, used a locally registered media to to do so and not all freelance journalists may be lucky to do that.

“We have been stigmatised,” says one journalist whose pseudonym is Alex Mpini. “We are always viewed with suspicion. Because of the heavily politicised environment, most people do not want to talk to us for fear of the lives, even on simple and non-controversial issues.”

“Journalism is a mine field in Zimbabwe,” says freelance journalist Gift Phiri, who was once victimised by the State for stories he contributed to The Zimbabwean newspaper run from London but sold in Zimbabwe.

“There is personal risk involved. You have to practice self censorship because you don’t want to antagonise anyone. In the end, your stories become watered down.”

He adds: We need to be taken like professionals.”

Fungai Kwaramba, another freelance journalist plying his trade in Harare says the impending elections makes the situation worse for freelance journalists.

“The state views us more like opposition activists. I tend to feel more insecure during election periods,” he said.

“Because we write under false names, we are easily fingered as authors of all false stories posted on the internet. Again it is difficult to grow in the field. No one is able to appreciate your capabilities because you do your things underground.”

John Cassim, a freelance photo journalist, says photographers are in bigger danger as they cannot easily hide their identities because they are easily given away by the camera.

“The situation is still politically tense. Your funeral begins when you identify yourself as a freelance journalist,” he says.

“This is even the case with politicians who do not seem to realise that we cover the vacuum created between independent and the state media.”

Franscisca Sibanda, a female freelance journalist, says women have extra problems in the profession.

“Men in this industry look down upon us. They think we are not cut out for it. They think we are not strong enough and if you do they see you as a sexual object not as a professional.”

Media, Information and Publicity minister Webster Shamu refused to respond over the telephone insisting on a physical meeting with this journalist. The journalist who was once beaten and detained in a filthy police cell for covering a public meeting was too afraid to take this risk.

“It’s good to talk while seeing each other. There are some people who lie that they are journalists when they are not,” insisted the minister.

Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary general Foster Dongozi said the journalists’ trade union was in the process of fighting for increased payments for stories paid to freelance journalists.

He added, “We are also in the process of campaigning for media plurality with partner organisations so that people would leave this mentality that the media is all about ZBC (Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation), The Herald and Newsday. That is why some people do not start their functions before the ZBC arrives.”