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banner Sunday, 3 March, 2002, 16:35 GMT
Quiz John Sweeney
Zimbabwe has banned the BBC. Eight months ago foreign correspondent John Sweeney was deported. But recently, as the elections draw closer, John Sweeney spent two weeks there secretly filming.

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Transcript of the forum

Newshost:
Hello and welcome to Correspondent interactive. With me is our foreign correspondent, John Sweeney, who is here to answer your questions raised from the Correspondent programme "Zimbabwe Burning".

Now the Zimbabwe government has banned the BBC from reporting from inside the country, so John spent two weeks, with his cameraman producer, Will Daws, secretly filming.

John you were deported about eight months ago, why were you determined to return and make this film?

John Sweeney:
Because it's a great story, because obviously there's a lot of interest in Zimbabwe and also I took it personally, I actually believe very strongly in the free media, that societies are rotten if they seek to become closed because it's to the advantage of the people of the people in power and personally I enjoy poking powerful people with a stick and seeing what happens. Robert Mugabe has been in power for 22 years, he's saying to journalists from the free world get out we don't want you and I found that irritating. So I was delighted to get back.

Newshost:
Well here's some of the comments that we've had since the programme aired. The first is from Francis Rowland in the UK, wants to know if the Zimbabwean authorities have made any comment about the programme - and we're doing this the day after it's going out in Britain - have you heard anything back?

John Sweeney:
Not yet, I hope it makes President Mugabe's blood boil, I guess it will because he banned us. Talked to Jonathon Moyo, he's the minister of information, I doubt whether he'll like it. Ordinary Zimbabweans - I've had a couple of e-mails from people already myself and they haven't seen it yet because it hasn't gone out on BBC World but people are e-mailing me saying - When is it going out on BBC World? I don't think they'll like it.

Newshost:
Stephanie Haynes is also in the UK. You went undercover as a tourist, as a birdwatcher, Stephanie wants to know: "Are there many Western tourists still in Zimbabwe and if not didn't you stand out?"

John Sweeney:
There aren't enough Western tourists, we looked completely ridiculous and we did stand out but somehow there was something so daft about being a birdwatcher that it managed to - it worked in some way. And certainly out in the east, a place called Chimanimani, we were trying to hunt down a man who's a prime suspect for a double killing, called Joseph Muali [phon.], who works for the secret police, the central intelligence organisation, we were a bit obvious, there just weren't enough tourists and that was one of the more kind of scary moments of our journey inside Zimbabwe.

Newshost:
Rae from Scotland has just returned from Zimbabwe it says here and wants to know when you made the film.

John Sweeney:
We were there in January and February.

Newshost:
So very recent.

John Sweeney:
Yeah.

Newshost:
Marion Dewar from Wiltshire, Alex B from Zimbabwe and somebody else called Wynette says in the light of your recent travels what are your thoughts on the Commonwealth's decision not to expel Zimbabwe before their elections?

John Sweeney:
Well I think the Commonwealth's being a bet wet in its general approach and I would, in particular, single out countries like South Africa and Nigeria. Essentially that the evidence that we've brought back with us, further and better particulars of horrific human rights abuses and having met these people and spoken to them, let them sort of - like you and I are talking - I have no doubt in my mind they're telling me the truth. But it's not - let's just disregard us for a moment - Amnesty International and others have been amassing a huge amount of evidence that Robert Mugabe is a serial abuser of human rights. So all those countries - Nigeria, South Africa and others in the Commonwealth - just trying to downplay what's going on inside Zimbabwe I think is wrong. However, it is true to say that the more election monitors are in Zimbabwe from outside the country the better. So I can understand why the Commonwealth as a whole has taken the view let's wait and see how the election goes and after the election before we decide what to do. But frankly I cannot see, if the Commonwealth believes in democratic process, what Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe is doing inside it because long before the elections have taken place the entire political background has been so slewed against the opposition it's been unfair.

Newshost:
An e-mail from Mamo, it doesn't say where he or she is from, but wants to know why the Europeans are bothering to get involved in African matters now. "If it's for the sake of the Zimbabwean people then why has it taken them so long? Or is it to try to win back some of the rights of the white farmers?"

John Sweeney:
Ah well the phrase "white farmers" wasn't in our film. I agree to an extent that yeah too much of the Western coverage has been about the white farmers, ours wasn't. What we looked at is the suffering of black democrats, people who've been tortured, some of whom have been murdered, simply for saying "I want to support a different political party". Now yeah, hey, I'm a European but I'm a human being too and I care about human rights wherever they're abused and I've done stories from Africa, from Asia, from Chechnya and the Russians could say - as a European that's not the issue, the issue is human rights wherever they're abused should be defended, should be stood up for and the people who defile and abuse human rights should be exposed and that's my job.

Newshost:
Fair enough and you neatly answer the point from Ebby Bowen at the same time who asked the same question. Now many people, including Wendy Jackson from England, who was in Zimbabwe herself during the year 2000 ...

John Sweeney:
Hello Wendy.

Newshost:
... have written to say they felt the tension and the fear while watching your programme but it's probably fairly insignificant how you felt - and we'll come to that in a second - but we're going to play a clip now, an extract from the film, where you're stopped and searched at a police roadblock on your way to Chimanimani.

Clip:
How are you?

Very well, how are you?

Thank you very much.

Thank you very much, bye bye. Well that went fine considering we left the camera tripod in the boot and the man saw the tripod and he said - What's that for? - Oh that's for the camera, we're shooting birds. And he went - Oh fine.

Newshost:
You see you can look back at that and laugh now but what were you feeling at the time?

John Sweeney:
Essentially what Will Daws and I, we got on very well, and either you're terrified all the time or you have a laugh about it all the time. Also we knew that if we were arrested then we'd go to prison or go to jail for a bit and then they'd deport us because we work for the BBC. What we were very, very worried about was people who told us who are our witnesses, our witnesses to torture, our witnesses to murder, all of them were volunteers but we were much more worried about them than getting locked up. Personally, I mean I work in the BBC building in White City, it's a ghastly building and anyone who works in White City, you know, the idea of spending a bit of time in a prison in Zimbabwe didn't scare me that much.

Newshost:
Tom Foote is a policeman in the UK, wants to know how you found the police generally.

John Sweeney:
Well generally, to me, I found the police more polite to me than they are in England but that's not what happens when they are - what they do is they walk idly by, it's like the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible, but they don't help, they're not the good samaritans. We had a story, extremely well evidenced, of a secret policeman called Joseph Muali burning to death two MDC activists and there was a police car just behind, Muali warns the police off and the police do nothing about it. And too often the policemen, although individually decent human beings, are also afraid, they're also, it seems, sort of locked into Robert Mugabe's migraine. The people at the top of the police - well there's an awful lot of evidence and at the beginning of the film we went to some mass graves in '83, '84, or what looked like mass graves, evidence we thought, we were told, of some of the graves where maybe 20,000 people had died, so the people at the top, including the police, in Zimbabwe have a lot to answer for.

Newshost:
Several viewers, including Izak and Sian Hill felt that perhaps Mr Mugabe had a reason to ban Western reporters, including the BBC, when such films as yours as so obviously anti-Mr Mugabe, what would you say to that?

John Sweeney:
Well there are two things: one is I'm a complete fundamentalist about this, you have an open society or you don't, you have a free media or you don't. Colleagues of mine, black Zimbabwean colleagues, but colleagues nevertheless, have been tortured by the Mugabe regime so I mean - well they're black Zimbabweans. Mugabe's got a problem with reporters, particularly reporters who make trouble, who tell stories they don't want out. That's the first thing. The second thing is, had we been able to go there, had he not banned us, had he not deported me, then fine we would have turned up to State House and the press conference and said Mr Mugabe why is it the opposition say they're torturing and murdering us, that you're doing it? And in his specific case I would have put all of the evidence in the film to Mr Mugabe but because I was illegal I couldn't do that.

Newshost:
Juliet le Breton is a former Zimbabwean and is now in the UK, wants to know if your report was responsible, I'm assuming she means in the way you've had contact and they were volunteers but there are people who have still shown their faces?

John Sweeney:
It's a matter of huge worry and everybody at the BBC, the producer Will Daws, the executive producer Simon Finch and the editor, were all very, very concerned about this. Every single person who appeared in our film did so as a volunteer, if you like it's a volunteer army. Some of them said please don't show my face, just my lips, just my eyes, and we went with that. Other people helped us but, for example, the people who took us to the mass grave sites, the suspected mass grave sites, they didn't want to be shown at all, we completely understood that. However - and so we've done it - but there is a risk but on the other hand if you let the tyranny run the show then the story doesn't get out. So it's a risk one takes, everybody who appeared in the film did so voluntarily and I hope and pray that they're going to be ok, but also ...

Newshost:
Are you still in contact with them?

John Sweeney:
Yes, yes absolutely, I'm not going to tell you how. But I salute them. The risk to us, to me and Will, was tiny compared to the risk to the people out there who want this story out and to that extent - and massively I salute them, they are incredibly brave people.

Newshost:
Questions alone the same lines from Henley Johnson, Ken-Ichi Oki from Japan, Diane Thombs, Timothy Wilkinshave - thank you for the questions and hopefully you've got them answered in there. Let's go to the next clip now where you're off to see the leader of the opposition in the boot of a car.

Clip:
Nothing is easy in Zimbabwe, not even seeing the leader of the opposition. It's only a short distance from where we're staying to where he lives but it's got to be probably the most unpleasant way of moving around in the boot of a car. On the other hand his house is often watched and because I've already been deported we can't take any risks.

I'm from the BBC.

My goodness what's happening? [LAUGHTER]

Hello.

Hello.

Sorry about that.

Newshost:
And Adam Thomson from Belgium wanted to know whether it was really necessary for you to hide in the boot of the car, wasn't that just a good gimmick for a camera?

John Sweeney:
No, I've been deported once by the secret police. I mean let's not mess about here - they took our passports away from us, we were stuck in a hotel with no passports, they escorted us to the airport and gave our passports to the pilot of the plane and we only got them back when we were on the other side in South Africa. Then we returned illegally and interviewed a whole bunch of torture and murder - well witnesses to torture and murder. So that we've got information on us which we don't want them to have. Tsvangerai has been shot at twice, he's been charged with treason, his house is watched by the secret police, so the producer laid down on the back seat and I was in the boot. Had we not been banned, were Zimbabwe a proper open society, of course it would be ridiculous - this chap lives in Belgium, I wouldn't go and see the prime minister of Belgium in a car boot but in Zimbabwe you do have to take extreme measures.

Newshost:
What would have happened if you'd been stopped?

John Sweeney:
It would have - it would have required a little bit of explaining but I daresay Will and I would have thought of something. I don't know - Ok sorry.

Newshost:
Annella Tindale in the UK asks how you think the taped allegations made last week against the leader of the MDC will affect a post-Mugabe state and have these allegations affected his campaign?

John Sweeney:
Well I don't think that Morgan Tsvangerai says what the Zanu PF, what Robert Mugabe says he says, I don't think he actually called for Mugabe's assassination. I don't think there's a plot to kill Mugabe, I don't think that's what Tsvangerai is doing, in fact it's a movement for democratic change. I do know that the two people responsible for the tape are - it's a man called Ari Ben-Menashe and another man called Alexander Legoe [phon.] and the important thing about them is that Ari Ben-Menashe is a known fantasist who's been condemned as such by a US Congress enquiry and Alexander Legoe is wanted for his part in a $13 million fraud by a judge in Daytona Florida in the United States. It looks as though it's a sting operation, certainly those two gentlemen, if I can use the term with respect to them, were in the pay of Robert Mugabe Zanu PF party when the interviewed Tsvangerai. Now the question is what's to prevent Tsvangerai from becoming a new Mugabe? I actually asked that question and Tsvangerai said - Listen it's not going to happen, the people won't let me and I'm only going to stay for two terms. But that's a question that we've got to - I'll come back to Zimbabwe in 5, 10 years and see how things are going. I have to say that there is, within the MDC, a general belief that Tsvangerai is a good man, he's brave, maybe there are times when there are question marks about his judgement but not his integrity.

Newshost:
You answered the question at the same time there from Cara who's in Zimbabwe, so I hope the answer was alright there. Several viewers, including David Green who's in Scotland, Mark Middlemas in the UK, they want to ask you if you think there's any chance Mr Mugabe will actually lose?

John Sweeney:
Oh I think - and this is my own personal view, it's not the BBC's - I think Mugabe's going to lose big time. I think there are lots and lots of people, including people in the police and the CIA - the secret police - who are going to - who support the opposition. So I think Mugabe will lose the vote. A simple test is the rallies, there was a rally just yesterday, obviously not in our film, but there were two rallies in Harare and maybe 15-20,000 turned up at Tsvangerai's rally, the opposition rally, and only 4,000 at Mugabe's. And let's remember that going to an opposition rally you can get beaten up, you can get followed, you can get arrested - that doesn't happen to you if you got to the Zanu PF rally. I think Mugabe's going to lose the vote, so the question is - is it going to be a free and fair election? - the answer to that is no because of the intimidation and harassment that's taken place thus far. How unfair and how unfree will the election be is a good question.

Newshost:
But Caroline de Kock, just on that point, is also in Zimbabwe wants to know what the international community can do in the event of it not being free or fair.

John Sweeney:
Well with respect that's above my pay grade, I mean those questions should be addressed to the president of the European Commission, Mr Tony Blair and whichever Bush is in charge of the White House. I'm just a simple hack who pretends to be a birdwatcher when I have to.

Newshost:
Christine, James Isaacs and Chris Esdaile: What can people do to support those working for change in Zimbabwe?

John Sweeney:
Well I suppose the - one of the best things you could do is get in touch with Amnesty International, I know that we were helped by Amnesty International. That's a very good place to start and probably the best - I mean I'm sure they're on the Internet, you can go there, you can join Amnesty, you can join in their letter writing campaigns. We've done something, actually, which addresses your question - we've sent our evidence on the film, which was essentially the evidence of torture victims and people who've witnessed murders, to the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, so that we don't want to stop it here, you know, we know what's happening and we're not going to let censorship and draconian reporting restrictions stop us from doing our job and we'd pass it on to the United Nations.

Newshost:
Does that mean you're going to go back at some stage?

John Sweeney:
I'd love to go back. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, it's a fantastic country, gorgeous people, amazing wildlife, even - though I have no idea about birds whatsoever - even some rather beautiful birds - honey colours, very pretty. It's a gorgeous place. I don't particularly like the government and it's fair for me to say so because they deported me simply because I was doing my job. I'd recommend Zimbabwe to anybody who wants an interesting holiday but possibly not in the next couple of weeks.

Newshost:
Thank you very much indeed. That's all we have time for today. Thank you for your e-mails to John Sweeney and we'll continue to put those up on our website, it's www.bbc.co.uk/correspondent. And in fortnight Phil Rees reports on the state of affairs in Cambodia a quarter of a century after Pol Pot's regime but from us goodbye.


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