Harare, Zimbabwe – Award-winning documentary maker Hopewell Chin’ono has never been one to hold back his opinion.
Even as a young journalism student in the early 1990s, he wasn’t afraid to speak up and hold him to account.
“He kind of kept track of when a teacher missed a class,” recalls former classmate Njabulo Ncube. “He would say, ‘We came here to learn and teachers who miss lessons cannot be tolerated.’ At one point, he took the matter to the college principal.
Some 30 years later, the independent journalist and anti-corruption activist remains as outspoken, a symbol of challenge for many in a country where few dare to protest.
‘Won’t be intimidated’
Chin’ono will appear in court on Monday for allegedly inciting public violence after approving anti-government protests scheduled for late July.
Chin’ono’s latest troubles began in June after he used social media to expose allegedly corrupt coronavirus-related contracts for the purchase of $ 60 million in protective equipment for healthcare workers. Along with senior government officials, Chin’ono and other reporters also linked President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son to the scandal – claims denied by Collins Mnangagwa and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the party that has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980.
“ZANU-PF noted with concern the well-choreographed and sponsored systematic attacks on the integrity of the First Family by unscrupulous figures such as Hopewell Chin’ono this time targeting the president’s son,” the spokesperson said. Patrick Chinamasa at a press conference in July. 4. “We are aware that these baseless attacks did not start today but must end immediately.”
It was a chilling warning, prompting Chin’ono to say on Twitter that “his life is now in danger” but also to declare that he “will not be afraid of fear”.
On July 20, less than two weeks before the opposition protests, police smashed a glass door as they raided Chin’ono’s home in Harare and took him away, accusing him of “Incitement to participate in a rally with the intention of promoting public violence, breaches of the peace or sectarianism”.
He spent 45 days in prison. When he was released on bail in September, he turn on the light on the poor state of the penal system and prisons in the country, which he equates to “concentration camps”.
Two weeks ago, he was arrested again and charged with contempt of court, but prosecutors later dropped the charges. He has since been accused again of attempting to “derail the course of justice” following his criticism of the country’s National Prosecution Authority in the case of a smuggler. or having political ties.
“Everything is designed to intimidate journalists,” Chin’ono, who denies all the charges, told Al Jazeera. “I am not intimidated. If they do this to me, other journalists will think twice before exposing corruption. “
Unperturbed, he continued to post on his 172,000 Twitter and 63,000 Facebook followers.
“In 1980 [when Zimbabwe attained independence from Britain], I was 9 years old. Today I’m 49 years old, [and] the same people who told me I was the future say they will be with us until 2030 because they continue to plunder everyone’s future, ”he wrote on Facebook recently. “I will not allow my children’s future to be stolen like mine was by corruption, pillage and plunder. No.”
‘A brilliant journalist’
Born in Harare on March 26, 1971, Chin’ono entered journalism in a somewhat detailed way, he admits.
At the age of 18, he was commissioned by Prize Beat magazine to feature Jamaican reggae star Dennis Brown, who in 1989 toured Zimbabwe. Dressed in a school uniform, he showed up for an interview with Brown at his Holiday Inn suite in the capital, Harare.
“I spent hours with Dennis and his wife talking about reggae, smoking and drinking,” Chin’one recalls. “It became a big party.”
From those early days, his future career was somehow made for him. He enrolled in the Zimbabwe Institute of Mass Communication, where he excelled.
“He’s a brilliant journalist,” says Ncube, the current Zimbabwe National Editors Forum coordinator. “In college he was at the top of the class and highly regarded.
After graduating in 1993, he left Zimbabwe to continue his studies in the UK, where he later worked for broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV.
He eventually relocated to Zimbabwe in 2007, but his country’s state under then-President Robert Mugabe left him in dismay.
“The economy has totally changed. The prices were incredibly high and the stores were empty, ”he says. “The state has collapsed and corruption has been institutionalized.”
Driven by the dire economic situation in the country and its impact on Zimbabweans, Chin’ono began filming Pain in my Heart, a compelling documentary on the state of affairs in Zimbabwe.
“The documentary was a juxtaposition of two political stories about two people infected with HIV and suffering from AIDS. The other received medicine from a church while the other could not afford to buy medicine, ”he says. “The other lived while the other died of complications from AIDS.”
Following the success of Pain in my Heart – which in 2008 won Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Leadership Award in Chin’ono, the Kaiser Family Foundation Award of Excellence for HIV / AIDS Reporting in Africa and the CNN African Journalist of the Year Award – he established Television International in Zimbabwe, a news production house, and continued to collaborate with international broadcasters on special assignments.
Throughout his life, he was committed to speaking out against injustice.
“I believe in a society that respects the rule of law, that respects the vote and a society that does not encourage corruption,” says Chin’ono. “These are my core beliefs.”
On social media, many seem to share Chin’ono’s point of view, and a quick review of the comments shows overwhelming support and messages of solidarity. Some offer prayers for protection; others just write notes of encouragement.
“Brother Hopewell, we cannot thank you enough for the work you do in fighting corruption in our country,” one comment read. “Hope we hope, corruption destroys lives. My wish is that one day all of our people will join in the fight against evil corruption, ”said another user.
Chin’ono himself often uses social media to criticize the government, but things haven’t always been so abrasive between him and the Mnangagwa administration.
When Mnangagwa took over in a military coup in November 2017 and promised political and economic reforms, Chin’ono, like many other Zimbabweans, threw his weight behind the pillar of ZANU-PF .
“I supported the idea of reforms that he [Mnangagwa] continued, ”says Chin’ono. “I thought it was genuine and there was no point in criticizing the coup itself because it had happened and was irreversible. For the sake of progress, it was wise to support his reforms.
“Fast forward to October 2018, I realized there were no reforms,” he said, adding that it was then that he “started to make noise” .
In August of the same year, six opposition supporters were killed when soldiers opened fire on people protesting what they saw as an attempt by the ZANU-PF party to steal a hotly contested election. Meanwhile, Zimbabweans continue to struggle to cope with a worsening economic crisis characterized by extremely high inflation and foreign exchange shortages, as well as a devastating mix of a rapidly weakening currency, stagnant wages. and high unemployment.
Human rights activists and human rights groups have also denounced an “unprecedented” crackdown on dissent which has resulted in the arrest of dozens of activists and opposition officials . The government has denied that it has suppressed opposing voices.
But just before he returns to court, Chin’ono says he will continue his fight against wrongdoing.
“Fighting corruption is something we should all do, and it’s not my fight alone,” he says. “We don’t have to wait for a moment of inspiration to start fighting corruption. It is something that we should do every day.
For former classmate Ncube, this kind of determination from Chin’ono is nothing new.
“I remember we had a housing problem in college at the time and he fought for it. We were struggling and yet there were newly built hostels at the college that had not yet been officially opened, ”he says.
Ultimately, under continued pressure from Chin’ono and others, school officials allocated the rooms to the students.
“I’m not surprised he’s attacking the authorities,” says Ncube.