Zimbabwe has charged two journalists under its cybercrime law in a move media advocates say runs counter to global trends to support and promote press freedom.Police in Harare have charged two journalists from the national paper, News Day, under provisions of the country’s Cyber and Data Protection Act that cover “false data messages.”

Editor Wisdom Mdzungairi and senior reporter Desmond Chingarande were called in for questioning last week over their coverage of a legal dispute involving local authorities and a memorial park in Harare.

Both deny the charge and Chingarande said he was surprised when police called.

“They allege l published a false statement on internet, but l see this as an intimidation tactic. There were allegations that they are burying people on a part of Glen Forest Memorial Park called Chikomo Chemhute, which is situated at the confluence of Mazowe River, without approval from responsible ministries,” he said.

Chingarande said he sought comment from all sides in the story before publishing. But, with the story now part of a police matter, he says he is unable to say much more.

Mdzungairi and Chingarande are the first journalists charged under new provisions of the cybersecurity law that Zimbabwe enacted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa said such laws are a means to target journalists and citizens.

Tabani Moyo, who heads the regional media watchdog, said, “These are some of the challenges which we continue having in Zimbabwe, where in we make progress in repealing acts such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, then the government claw(s) back using other pieces of legislation to retain elements that will further targets journalists. To have penal or sedition provisions in our statute books that target journalists [is] so out of sync with the global trends toward promotion and protection of media and journalistic expression.”

Zimbabwe is not alone in passing such laws, Moyo said. Zambia, Eswatini and Tanzania enacted cybersecurity laws and Namibia and Lesotho are finalizing similar legislation.

Moyo says heavy penalties, including up to 20 years in prison for those deemed to have shared false news, goes against democratic norms.

“This is an anathema to democratic existence and out of sync with our own constitution which provides for freedom of expression and media freedom, also violating international and regional conventions and tools,” Moyo said.

Ruby Magosvongwe, chair of the Zimbabwe Media Commission — a government-appointed body set up to promote and protect journalism — said she is aware of concerns over violations against the media.

Speaking at a conference on the safety of journalists, organized by UNESCO and media watchdogs in Africa Friday, she called for the government to be more involved in complaints of attacks against the media.

“My wish, my desire, is that in future we include our line ministries so that they get the firsthand reports, because they provide the link between ourselves as media institutions, media entities, with the respective governments from across the continent, across Africa, because examples have been given where journalists have suffered violence but if the line ministries are not involved, then it becomes kind of a conspiracy of sorts,” Magosvongwe said.

For News Day journalists Mdzungairi and Chingarande, they are now waiting to hear from court officials on when a trial in their case will take place.