As an award-winning investigative journalist and filmmaker, Hopewell Chin’ono has been repeatedly arrested for uncovering the truth and countering injustice. In 2022, we invited him to address the 14th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, where he spoke on corruption in Zimbabwe.
In a candid discussion with Hillel Neuer, Chin’ono provides a deeper glimpse into his early life and career as a journalist, the historical trajectory of the deepening crisis in his home country, and how the international community can support Zimbabweans in their fight against authoritarianism.
Many people know very little bit about Zimbabwe. Can you tell us about your experiences growing up in Zimbabwe?
I was born in 1971 at Zimbabwe’s Harare hospital, now renamed Sally Mugabe Hospital after the late wife of the founding president, Robert Mugabe. I grew up then in what was called Rhodesia. As a kid, I experienced the war efforts to liberate the country from colonial rule. I was moved from school to school because the war was intensifying. My father was a civil servant but he also assisted in the war efforts. He would assist by buying clothes for the liberation fighters. Because of this, I grew up politically conscious of what was happening in the country. Our country became independent in 1980 and Mugabe became the first leader of an independent Zimbabwe.
Do you remember that period of time when the country first gained independence in 1980?
Yes, I remember it. There was so much euphoria as the bitterness that had been created by colonialism was mainly rooted in racism. Black people were not able to do certain things that white people were able to do.
“Everyone was happy that there was now going to be a country that’s been created where everyone is equal, where everyone is happy.”
Unlike most African countries that became independent, the white community did not live in mass. The white community stayed in Zimbabwe and the first ten years were harmonious between the white population and the black population. In fact, what became the problem that we encountered in post-colonial Zimbabwe was the infighting amongst black political parties.
But at that time, I saw my father getting disillusioned three-four years into post-colonial rule. He was complaining about how the political elites were living lavish lifestyles, living in “Hollywood types” of mansions, while there was slow progress on the ground trying to bring equality. It felt to him as if we had replaced one group of people that was oppressing the majority with a new group of people. The only difference is that this time it was black people who were oppressing other black people. That disillusionment grew a lot in people that were conscious about what was happening. Meanwhile, the majority of the people were just happy to carry on with their lives because the economy had not really collapsed as it later would 20 years later after independence. As I grew up, I would quickly share this disillusionment with my father. I turned to journalism as an avenue to express my thoughts.
How did you become a journalist?
I went to the journalism school in Zimbabwe called the Zimbabwe Institute of Mass Communications. It was very difficult to get a place there because it accommodated not only Zimbabweans but South Africans who were not yet independent from two major political parties, the ANC, the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela, and the Pan African Congress. We also had a cohort from Botswana. But I was lucky because I started writing for a magazine when I was doing my A levels. I think that helped me to get into the institute.
After journalism school, what sort of your trajectory did you have till you got to some of the prominent things that you later accomplished? What was your path?
My studies required me to go and work in newsrooms as part of our practical education through some sort of internship. When I went to work in these newsrooms, I realized that it’s not the kind of stuff that I wanted to do. I started with the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, which was the only broadcasting institute at the time. Its television station is still the only TV station in the country even 43 years after independence. The quality of broadcasting there was very different compared to what I was listening to on shortwave radio, such as the BBC World Service I wanted to go and do postgrads and then get an opportunity to work for the BBC, which became a goal. I wanted to get myself an opportunity to work at a service that I used to listen to since I was a young boy. That’s what led me to leave the country immediately for England after finishing my program with the Zimbabwe Institute of Mass Communications.
Did you end up achieving your goal and working for the BBC?
Yes! I started worked at the BBC while completing my master’s in international journalism. through an internship.
“Indeed, I worked with the BBC World Service and my editor then was one of the guys that we used to listen to when we were young boys in primary school. It was a dream come true.”
How long were you in the UK? Why did you leave?
The first time I was in the UK for nine years. I went back home in 2003.
In 2000, Mugabe realized that his grip on power had been loosened. He was losing elections and rigging them. He kicked out the commercial farmers from their land on the basis that he was redressing the land imbalances, which were built in by the colonial system. But the land reform was chaotic and violent. It was mainly meant to keep the Zanu PF and Robert Mugabe in power and was not necessarily about land because it was given to cronies. He also kicked out all international journalists from the country. Anyone who was working for an international organization who was not Zimbabwean was kicked out. I saw that as an opportunity. In 2003, I asked my then editor if I could go to Zimbabwe and work as a journalist for the BBC. He agreed and said they’d give me a freelance contract.
“When I got home to what I thought was going to be the start of a great journey as a journalist, working for the organization that I had always admired, the government refused to license me.”
In Zimbabwe, journalists are accredited. They said I have to work with an outfit, or from a production house that they had ties to. When I refused, they refused to license me. I could not work from Zimbabwe so I applied for a Chevening Scholarship, which is a British government scholarship given to overseas territories, which I won the scholarship. Because of this, I went back to England to do another Masters in documentary filmmaking.
You certainly had an interesting rise into journalism, a field that you really wanted to work in for a long time. Yet, somehow, it got you into trouble.
In my work at UN Watch, we’ve been bringing dissidents from Zimbabwe to testify at the UN and the Geneva Summit has been hosting people from Zimbabwe. In 2017, we were all very excited to see that finally, Mugabe’s regime, was over following the coup. We hoped it would turn a new page and Zimbabwe would start enjoying true independence. However, it doesn’t seem like that was the case. Can you can tell us what happened since the Mugabe regime ended? What are the issues that you’ve been working on that keep getting you in trouble with the government and arrested?
It first began when I started shooting for my next film, “A Violent Response,” which looks at the post-election violence of 2008 in Zimbabwe. In 2009, I won the Nieman Fellowship to go to Harvard, which gave me an opportunity to work on the film. When I released it to international acclaim, it won awards as a true reflection of what had happened.
Then the unity government between Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF with Morgan Tsvangirai and his movement for democratic change happened. The economy sort of stabilized but the same problems continued. Today’s ruling Zanu PF elites were running a parallel structure to the government, looting and plundering diamonds. The troubles did not really go away.
In 2013, when Mugabe rigged his way again back into power, the economy started spiraling out of control again. The exchange rate came back into play because we had been transacting in US dollars only. Mugabe decided that the Zimbabwean dollar had to be brought back and declared – not through market forces, but through a political decree – that the Zimbabwe Dollar is equivalent to the US dollar. They started looting public funds during that time. They would go into people’s bank accounts, which had money deposited in US dollars and deposit Zimbabwean dollars and say that it is the equivalent, one to one. For example, if you had 200,000 US dollars in your account, you were given 200,000 Zimbabwe dollars, which you could not use outside the country.
The power struggle then kicked into place between Robert Mugabe and those that wanted to succeed him. They first got rid of the first female Vice President and Emmerson Mnangagwa became Mugabe’s Vice President. Then Mugabe started moving against Emmerson Mnangagwa and individuals in the military. They were controlling diamond fields in the eastern part of the country and they started having problems. To counter Mugabe, they devised a plan to try and get Mnangagwa in as the president. Mugabe then fired the vice president Emmerson Managua; that’s when the coup happened.
When the coup occured in 2017, a lot of Zimbabweans rejoiced. They supported the idea of the coup because they thought that it was going to relieve us of the political and economic problems that had been building up for 20 years. When Mnangagwa became President after the removal of Mugabe, he said all the right things and allowed what was a relatively free and fair election, although it was later rigged. But on the eve of the election results being announced, the military was sent into the streets and killed six people. That’s when we realized that nothing had changed. If anything, Mugabe’s enforcers, who were now in charge, were going to be more violent than Mugabe himself. The looting of public funds intensified; it was on steroids. The public health infrastructure started collapsing. Schools were collapsing, roads were becoming dilapidated.
“The removal of Mugabe, much as it seemed a relief for Zimbabweans, turned into a total nightmare.”
Now, the common understanding among us Zimbabweans is that Mugabe was better. It’s indicative of how bad things are now considering how Mugabe was ruthless, incompetent and ran a corrupt regime.
I want to read you a quote from address of the Justice Minister of Zimbabwe to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. He said the following: “My government renews its commitment to equality for all to the sanctity of human life and dignity and to the protection of all fundamental human rights.” Does that sound correct to you?
No, it’s not. His ministry has been behind some of the most horrendous persecutions against Zimbabweans. They’ve used the courts and the police system to persecute political critics, journalists and politicians. What he’s saying is for the international audience but I’m sure because we live in the digital age, the audience found his words laughable.
When you were arrested, was there any outcry in the world? If so, doesn’t that outcry have some impact on the Zimbabwean regime’s diplomacy abroad?
When I was arrested, there was a massive outcry, both within the region and internationally. In fact, the African National Congress, which is the ruling party in South Africa, sent a delegation to talk to the Zimbabwean Government. There was a #ZimbabweanLivesMatter. It was two of us when I was arrested, myself and a political activist. There was a massive outcry mainly because of my profile as an international journalist. It was on every TV station.
“There are too many people who get incarcerated and persecuted, who do not share the same high profile that I have, who slip through the cracks as the international community doesn’t get to know about them.”
For our diverse audience, can you provide a brief synopsis of the multiple arrests you’ve faced these past years.
I was arrested the first time on the 20th of July, 2020. Seven policemen came to my home and got into my compound. They broke in, dragged me out of the house and took me to the police station. I was denied bail three times and spent 45 days in prison before being released on reconnaissance bail and has to pay $20,000. When I returned home, I saw they had taken all my broadcasting equipment so I could not do work even when I came out. They also took my passport. The case was eventually thrown out one and a half years.
When I came out of prison in September, 2020, I was arrested again on the third of November after exposing that a gold smuggler, who was the niece of the President, was going to get bail unopposed. I spent about 23 days in prison for speaking out, and then I was released.
I was arrested again for the third time on the seventh of January, 2021. This time they were saying that I had said something that was slanderous and defamatory to the police. They used a law that was expunged from our constitution in 2016 to make the arrest. Because of it, I stayed in prison unnecessarily for approximately 25 days. That case was later thrown out again.
The only case that’s remaining, which is currently on trial, is that of exposing the President’s niece. They are saying that it was obstruction of justice because I described something that was before the courts. But when I had posted on Twitter what was happening, the case was not before the courts. While we applied for an exception, arguing that the timeline presented was false, the magistrate ridiculously said “well, it might not have been pending, but it was imminently pending.”
Being imprisoned, to put it mildly, must be very unpleasant. Your freedom is taken away. I’m sure there are other terrible things that took place when you were in prison. Most people would say all right, you tried to do good, you’ve tried to do your job as a journalist and speak out against injustice and corruption, but you’ve paid the price. Why not just keep a low profile and take a pause?
That’s what the regime would want; they want me to keep quiet. The idea of arresting me so many times on ridiculous charges is meant to make me stay silent. I have not made any money since 2020 when I was first arrested because all my equipment was taken away. One would argue that the logical thing to do would have been to stop doing this work, which I continue doing through social media. Luckily, I’ve won awards for it, some of which came with a monetary value, which has been my source of income.
“The only thing that I can give back to society, to the young ones whose future is being destroyed today, is to do something, to act by using my skills as a journalist to expose corruption.”
We live in a country where – as I said at the Geneva Summit in April 2022 – there are no radiotherapy machines. There is not one single working radiotherapy machine in the country in a public hospital. There are also no CT scans, no MRI scans, and there is no paracetamol in central hospitals. Because of this, I feel that with the voice that I have, the profile that I have, the big following I have – which exceeds 800,000 followers – it’s important for me to amplify some of these things so that society can then make choices about public affairs based on correct information.
We are the only country of significance in Africa that has only one terrestrial television station. This is not by accident; it’s deliberate. It is meant to withhold information from people so that what you see is government propaganda. Therefore, people like me have got an important role in society. It’s unfortunate that our work does not attract any sort of funding. Otherwise, we’d be able to do more. I’m just a man who operates from his iPhone, using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and sometimes Tik Tok to try and put information out there.
Each time, when I go out to the supermarket to buy groceries, I meet very old women and men who come to me and thank me. I meet black, white, Asian people who come to me and thank me for the work that I’m doing. I know that my work makes an impact on our society and that is why I keep doing it. Because if I don’t do it, there are not many people left to as so many people have been beaten into submission.
As you rightly said, a lot of people would have stopped speaking out when they were thrown into prison three times on trumped up charges. I haven’t yet.
If those who are trying to expose injustice and corruption with the truth are silent and stop, who’s going to do it. As you know, several of the journalists, human rights activists and dissidents that we invite to the Geneva Summit have been in prison like yourself or are currently prison, such as Vladimir Kara-Murza and Felix Maradiaga. I hope people reading this get inspired as I know many at the Geneva Summit were.
Government authorities still harass you. Can you speak further on how they continue to do so?
From time to time, they come to my rural village. Here in Africa, we live in the cities, but we’ve got villages where we come from. They wanted to take my goats and they were lying that they had given me them. It was so embarrassing because it became an international story on international television.
Beyond that, I am regularly cyber bullied, even by the President’s spokesperson. They try to instill the fear of God in me to keep me on tenterhooks, not knowing what’s going to happen next. But I’ve come to expect that kind of behavior.
“I know that they could do the worst and kill me. But I’m at a point where I say to myself it is what it is, I must keep going.”
We’re based in Geneva at the Human Rights Council. Sometimes they do the right thing and other times, the dictatorships exercise their power get council to do the wrong thing. One of the wrong things that they’ve done is create a mandate called the UN Experts on Unilateral Coercive Measures, which means sanctions. The special rapporteur Alina Douhan says that whenever there are sanctions against a dictatorship, the dictatorship is the victim. She’s gone to many countries and said the same message. She went to Venezuela and said Maduro was the victim. She went to Iran and said the Iran regime was the victim. And, as you may know, she went a year or two ago to Zimbabwe and said the Zimbabwe regime is a victim of sanctions. Do you think your government is a victim of Western sanctions?
When the rapporteur came to Zimbabwe, she didn’t even meet some of the people that she was supposed to meet. She issued a preliminary report without even meeting the opposition. It was quite clear that she’d come to do a hatchet job.
Sanctions do exist. The most important question is what is required to remove these sanctions. The requirement is to simply follow our constitution. This means that my government has refused to follow the Constitution for the past 22 years since the sanctions were imposed. I find the sanctions argument very ridiculous because it makes us look like we don’t have half a brain.
“Why would you spend 22 years refusing to implement a constitution that you yourself wrote?”
These sanctions are meant to push our government to do the right thing. We’ve said to our government to not do things that attract sanctions. If you want sanctions to go, follow our Constitution. But, of course, the rapporteur who came ran with the line that we expected her to run with. As you correctly said, it has been a line in all these other authoritarian countries.
Now, the interesting thing is that Zimbabwe is in a debt trap and the government is broke. Trying to reduce their debt, they brought an African man from Nigeria who’s the president of the African Development Bank. He is a friend, not an enemy. He himself told the president on Thursday last week that in order to remove sanctions, they need to implement the Constitution. He mentioned freedom of speech and the fact that we must have free and fair elections. These are things that are no longer being said just by Westerners, but by Africans themselves because it has become an embarrassing situation even for those who defend the government.
Thank you for giving some important background on that because I think it’s a perspective that people often don’t hear about. For people at home who care about the issues that you’re talking about, is there a point of pressure? Are there some governments that they should be speaking with to tell them to care more about Zimbabwe? What would you advise them to do?
The point person for the Zimbabwean crisis is the South African Government. Millions of undocumented Zimbabweans have poured into South Africa.
“This Zimbabwean crisis is becoming an albatross for the southern region of Africa.”
Unfortunately, the South African government seems to be supporting the ruling party in Zimbabwe. And yet, this migrant crisis is no longer a foreign policy issue. It’s now a domestic issue in South Africa because their citizens are complaining that they’re losing jobs to Zimbabweans who are underpaid. Employers are more likely to hire a Zimbabwean because they will take a lower wage than a local citizen. Because of this, the South African government is the right place to turn to try and knock some sense into their system. A prosperous Zimbabwe is good for South Africa. And, of course, the African Union is also a place one would normally considers. However, it’s an old people’s club where they do the same things. It’s also a club of dictators. To try and get them to move on one of their own is very difficult.
Thank you for taking the time to be with us today and sharing very important information about what’s going on in Zimbabwe, a country that has captured the world’s attention at several points in history. As you said, their problems never stay local. People can’t ignore it. I want to commend you for the courageous stance that you’ve taken as a journalist, which I think inspires other journalists around the world.