Jailed for "committing journalism" in Zimbabwe (and Uganda)

New York Times reporter Barry Bearak is caught red-handed by Zimbabwean police committing the heinous crime of… journalism. Fortunately, he emerges to tell the tale:

“But you’re actually a journalist?” I was asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“And you are not accredited in Zimbabwe?”

“No, I’m not.”

I had concerns well beyond myself, for certain Zimbabweans had been assisting me. Messages between us lived on in the phone. Whatever bad times lay ahead for me, I imagined things would undoubtedly be worse for these others, these friends.

One of the cops gripped the phone. “You’re in terrible trouble,” he admonished. His tone was menacing but there was also an odd curl to his smile that I took to be an invitation.

“Can you help me?” I whispered.

His right thumb was nimbly working the keypad of the phone, but then it dropped to his side and he used it to massage his forefinger, sign language for the universal lubricant of the greased palm. In a few minutes, I negotiated safe passage to the bathroom and left him $100 in my shaving kit.

Then we stood shoulder to shoulder. “What’s this?” he’d demand accusingly as we scrolled through the messages. Each time I’d nod yes, he’d hit delete.

The crowded room was hot. Already, I felt jailed. I needed a breath of air, but when I moved toward the door, Detective Jasper Musademba, a well-built man in a jacket and tie, stopped me. He had been the most threatening of the police. “If you try to go outside…” he said sternly, stopping in midsentence. He made his hand into a gun and pulled the trigger.

“You’ll kill me?” I asked.

“Good,” he remarked wryly. “Then you’ve seen that movie.”

The full account is here.

No less worryingly, Reuters Africa is reporting that Andrew Mwenda and two other staffers of the Independent have been arrested by Ugandan officials. Read the story on his Ugandan newspaper. (Via the TED blog.)

It is 9.30am on Saturday April 26 and The Independent’s Managing Editor Andrew Mwenda is driving from his home along Golf Course Road in Kololo for the Capital Gang programme on Capital FM radio. As he climbs up Coral Crescent Rise towards Lower Kololo Terrace, two suspicious cars come from in front of him, the front one towards him at breakneck speed. Thinking that perhaps the driver had lost control, he stops and tries to reverse when suddenly three other cars appear from behind, one knocking his rear bumper.

Then a swarm of security operatives surround the car, one young man tries to open the door but it is locked from inside. He pulls out a gun and points it at Mwenda asking him to get out of the car. When Mwenda opens the door, the security operatives pounce on him, forcefully pulling him out of the car, confiscating his phones, watch and car before dumping him into a waiting car and driving off in a heavily defended convoy at break-neck speed.

“There were not witnesses around,” Mwenda narrates his ordeal. “I realised the state wanted me to disappear without a trace. So I opened the car window and shouted at people along the road that I was Andrew Mwenda being kidnapped by CMI. At this point, the security operatives pulled me back and this time handcuffed me so that I do not cause more trouble.

“As we drove towards the airstrip, I saw a waiting military helicopter which had just landed there and I was thinking whether [President Yoweri] Museveni himself had ordered to see me but wanted me to arrive to him with intimidation. There were many PGB soldiers guarding the place. The other alternative I thought the helicopter was maybe intended to take me to Gulu and kill me from there.