By Blessings Mashaya and Andrew Kunambura
Feeling the heat of the country’s worsening economic crisis, the government has pressed the panic button — threatening a savage clampdown on the media and pro-democracy groups in its desperate bid to quell any possible trouble.
This comes as jittery Zimbabweans continue to besiege shops and fuel stations, as fears of worse things to come refuse to go away in the wake of the country’s continuing foreign exchange and cash crisis.
On Sunday morning, police swooped on outspoken clergyman Evan Mawarire as he was in the middle of delivering a sermon to his Milton Park congregants, at the His Generation Church.
And later that day, Home Affairs minister Ignatius Chombo issued an ominous warning against journalists and social media users for reporting on the country’s escalating economic crisis.
He claimed that the media was causing “alarm and despondency” by writing articles which suggested that Zimbabwe was slipping back to the gloom and doom of 2008, when local inflation hit world record levels and supermarket shelves went empty for months on end.
“The ministry of Home Affairs’ attention has been drawn to a sudden spate of irresponsible press and social media reports falsely claiming that there is chaos in the currency markets that has precipitated widespread panic buying of basic commodities due to their alleged shortage or skyrocketing prices.
“It is notable that the running thread of these hyperbolic press and social media reports is their propaganda that the country had suddenly slipped back to the hyperinflationary days of 2008. Of grave concern to the ministry is that these reports have all the trappings of a politically-coordinated criminal agenda by some well-known renegades and malcontents who now seek to disturb the peace in the country to cause alarm and despondency in pursuit of an alleged political programme.
“It is a criminal offence and is therefore punishable. In the circumstances, government is closely monitoring the press and social media reports in question with a view to taking decisive action to deal a telling blow to the perpetrators of the crime in terms of the laws of the country’s criminal justice system,” Chombo said.
But the dire economic situation on the ground remained the same yesterday for the third day in succession, with panicking shoppers swamping supermarkets to buy as many goods as they could get their hands on in the wake of growing shortages of basic consumer goods that have been triggered by the acute shortage of foreign currency.
There were also continuing long queues of desperate motorists wanting to fill up their cars at the few fuel stations which had petrol and diesel.
Similarly, local pharmacies are also still struggling to stock critical drugs due to the biting foreign currency challenges, forcing them to also hike the prices of essential medicines.
Zimbabwe is relying on foreign imports for its much-needed drugs, medicare equipment and other hospital consumables. It imports more than $400 million worth of basic drugs each year.
Apart from failing to access foreign currency at local banks, ordinary Zimbabweans have over the past few weeks been greeted by sharp increases in the prices of basic goods, as retailers hike prices continually in response to the high cost of money on the parallel market.
Civic society groups and political analysts said the threats against the media by Chombo betrayed a government that was desperate and feeling the heat from the current economic mess.
Piers Pigou, senior consultant at the International Crisis Group, said it was not clear why Chombo felt this kind of statement would help the situation.
“Shooting the proverbial messenger even if you don’t agree is counterproductive and reflects a paucity of quality political leadership that is so desperately needed in Zimbabwe at this time,” he told the Daily News.
“Threatening commentary on social media is also a surefire way not to allay the growing fears of the deteriorating economic situation,” he added.
Political analyst Gladys Hlatywayo said the threats were indicative of the government’s “usual approach” to pressure.
“Our government has only one tool at its disposal, the hammer, where every problem is a nail. Zanu PF’s default mode for every challenge is violence and it is not surprising that they are issuing out threats in response to the current crisis.
“These threats are a betrayal of freedom of expression and media freedoms as enshrined in the national charter. Unfortunately, the economy does not respond to threats and commands but to sound and disciplined economic planning,” Hlatywayo told the Daily News.
“The year 2008 is a clear indicator of where we are heading. Sadly, Zanu PF continues doing the same things while expecting a different outcome,” she added.
Media groups said it was worrying that the government used threats whenever the country was about to hold elections.
“We have always recorded such a sad development ahead of elections, whereby both government and political offices seek to avoid addressing the hard questions confronting the country through ‘shooting the messenger’.
“The media is a soft target during such a period. We therefore call upon the government to ensure that the safety of journalists and the media is guaranteed during and after elections. The same is true for media activists expressing themselves online,” Golden Maunganidze, the newly-elected chairperson of Misa Zimbabwe, said.
Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) secretary-general Foster Dongozi also said the government must stop the habit of threatening journalists ahead of elections.
“We find it very alarming that the minister responsible for the police is making statements threatening journalists, which is totally uncalled for. Journalists are very professional … The only people who peddle falsehoods are politicians,” said Dongozi.
Mawarire has been charged with “subverting a constitutionally-elected government” after he urged Zimbabweans to take peaceful action against the government over its failing economic policies.
Although he was due to appear at the Harare Magistrates’ Courts yesterday, he failed to do so as he was also appearing at the High Court where he was indicted for trial on charges of “subverting a constitutionally-elected government”.
Meanwhile, economists have warned that it will take radical reforms to put brakes on the current slide towards total economic implosion.
University of Zimbabwe economics professor, Tony Hawkins, said any prospects for economic recovery would require serious reforms.
“Look at the rate of inflation, look at what is happening on the stock exchange. There has to be very radical reforms, probably a change of people in positions of authority.
“Pathetic allocations (of foreign currency) by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) are forcing companies to go to the parallel market for foreign currency where they are asked high premiums, and this in turn is causing prices to rise,” said Hawkins.
This view was supported by another UZ economics professor Ashok Chakravarti.
“Naturally, when importers are not getting allocations they turn to the parallel market in order to restock to avoid shortage of goods, and the result is the increase of prices,” Chakravarti told the Daily News.
Economic researcher Tinashe Kaduwo also said fiscal reforms were long overdue and are urgently needed to restore confidence.
“Currently, unbudgeted for government expenditures have put the economy in a similar quagmire with the hyperinflationary era where over-run government spending led to record-level money printing and the demise of the local currency.
“The country needs also to have strong and independent institutions. Government’s continued borrowings through the issuance of sovereign paper and reliance on the Reserve Bank overdraft facility is clearly a sign of institutional and governance weaknesses,” Kaduwo said.
Former Finance minister Tendai Biti said the government was “clueless” and didn’t know how to solve the current crisis.
“We are in a mess because of Zanu PF’s toxic policies. We are having this crisis because of the printing of bond notes and the financing of maize production in the last season.
“GMB (Grain Marketing Board) buys maize at $390 per tonne and sells it for $250 per tonne. Some people are buying a tonne from GMB and selling it back to gain $140,” Biti said. Daily News