Zimbabwean police Tuesday arrested three journalists at a state newspaper over a story implicating police and parks officers in the poisoning of some 60 elephants, saying their report was false. Authorities arrested Sunday Mail editor Mabasa Sasa, the paper’s investigations editor Brian Chitemba and reporter Tinashe Farawo late Monday. They are being held at Harare Central Police Station.
The trio are charged with “communicating false statements prejudicial to the state,” police spokeswoman Charity Charamba told reporters in the capital. The newspaper report alleged that a police assistant commissioner, rangers in the parks and wildlife department, an Asian businessman and several junior officers were being investigated for the recent poisoning of at least 60 elephants in separate incidents.
The police however said there was no internal investigation being conducted into their officers who were allegedly involved in elephant poaching and that the story was untrue. “The editor and reporters of The Sunday Mail cannot be allowed to hide behind the privilege of journalism to peddle falsehoods,” said Charamba.
“We therefore appeal to all journalists to verify all sensitive information with a view of writing accurate information.” A media watchdog, the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) condemned the journalists’ arrest. “It’s barbaric in a democracy. It infringes on the constitution which provides for freedom of expression,” said VMCZ director Loughty Dube.
“The police should simply have asked for a retraction, issued a statement with the correct position or registered their complaint through VMCZ.” Charamba also announced that police had in August arrested a man at Harare international airport with 62 elephant tusks weighing 618 kilogrammes (1,360 pounds) worth $154,000.
Last month, two other men were arrested for illegally possessing ivory and firearms. In another separate case, two men were also arrested last month for stealing 100 kilogrammes (220 pounds) of cyanide at a factory warehouse in the second city of Bulawayo.
Scores of elephants have died from poisoning by suspected poachers near Zimbabwe’s main game reserve and near the border with Botswana in recent months. Some of the carcasses were found without tusks. Officers from the parks department have been arrested in connection with the incident.