A US journalist has been freed from a ‘hell hole’ prison in Zimbabwe but has been told she can’t leave the country after allegedly calling President Mugabe ‘selfish and sick’ on Twitter.
Martha O’Donovan had been charged with attempting to overthrow Mugabe as well as undermining or insulting the veteran leader, now 93.
Her arrest in a dawn raid at her apartment last Friday came just weeks after the government appointed a cybersecurity minister tasked with policing social media.
She was today released after a judge sided with the defence and accepted that the state had failed to justify the reason for remanding her in custody.
The journalist was likely held in the notorious Harare Central prison which is known for overcrowding and ‘decrepit’ conditions.
O’Donovan’s lawyer Obey Shava, said outside the High Court in Harare: ‘Ms Martha O’Donovan has been granted $1,000 bail (860 euros) and ordered to reside at a given address, surrender her passport… and report [to detectives] twice a week.’
O’Donovan was accused of being behind a tweet posted by anonymous Twitter user @matigary on October 11.
The tweet labeled Mugabe, 93, a ‘selfish and sick’ man and suggested he was relying on a catheter.
Police claimed they traced its IP address to her home and they said she is behind the entire account despite the fact that it was still active on Saturday even after she was thrown in jail.
‘LOL they think she is me,’ said one of the tweets. The person behind the account also joked that they had tried to turn themselves in but that the authorities wanted to keep O’Donovan behind bars because she is foreign.
O’Donovan is a producer for the political satire TV network Magamba and who has studied human rights across Africa for years.
She was likely being held in one of two notoriously grotty prisons – Chikurubi or Harare Central.
Authorities in Zimbabwe said they traced the IP address of the October 11 post to O’Donovan’s home and they believe she is behind the account.
A judge dismissed her lawyers’ motion to throw out the arrest warrant on Saturday.
O’Donovan, a graduate of NYU, has been in Zimbabwe for the last year working for the local TV network Magamba and bar tending.
She went to Africa in 2013 to teach young local people how to become radio journalists as part of her NYU fellowship on human rights in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Magamba TV, which she now works as a producer for, describes itself the home of ‘satirical comedy sensations’.
On Saturday, the account was still active as O’Donovan languished in jail. Its anonymous user is relentless in their criticism of Mugabe who they refer to as ‘Goblin’
They jokingly claimed that they turned themselves in after O’Donovan’s arrest but were turned away because they were ‘after muzungu’ – an African term for foreigners
As news of her arrest emerged on Friday, a #FreeMartha social media campaign calling for her release went viral.
The woman’s family in her hometown of Martinsville, New Jersey, did not yet comment on her arrest at the time.
Her arrest warrant stated that on October 11, she, under the Twitter handle @matigary, tweeted: ‘We are being led by a sick and selfish man’.
It was said she ‘founded’ Magamba – the network which she works for – and allege that she may be trying to ‘overthrow’ the government through her work for it.
Magamba was founded in 2007, when she was 15, by Comrade Fatso & Outspoken, two African men and hip hop artists.
Police say she also retweeted one of @matigary’s tweets on the Magamba Twitter account which referred to Mugabe as a ‘goblin’.
But on Saturday, as she sat in jail after handing over all of her electronics, @matigary was still active.
‘LOL I am in and still tweeting,’ the account posted, pretending to be her.
In another tweet, they said: ‘I think I should sue Goblin for putting my name into disrepute.’
O’Donovan is seen arriving at Harare Magistrates Court on Saturday morning to face the charges
Before she was remanded in custody on Saturday, O’Donovan posed for photographs with her lawyers and with others inside the court. They said she was in ‘high spirits’ despite the charges
Mugabe, 93, and his ZANU-PF party are notoriously anti-white and harsh on anyone who dares to criticize the government
O’Donovan’s arrest is the first of its kind since Mugabe appointed a minister for cybersecurity last month.
It was a move which human rights activists criticized, claiming it infringed on free speech.
In a statement before her court appearance, she said: ‘I deny the allegations leveled against me as baseless and malicious.’
O’Donovan, a graduate of New York University, previously referred to herself as a ‘media activist.’
Earlier this year, she presented a talk at a republica digital culture conference on ‘How Zimbabweans Rebel Online’.
She was previously involved with campaigning for the release of Pastor Evan Mawarire who was jailed last year on similar charges.
She traveled to Africa in 2013 to work for The Children’s Radio Foundation where she said her job was to train local young people to become reporters.
It was part of her fellowship at NYU Gallatin which focused on human rights in African cities.
Martha, 25, is an NYU graduate and was raised in New Jersey
The 25-year-old has been living in Zimbabwe for at least a year and works on local TV station Magamba
O’Donovan also works as a bartender in Avondale, a suburb of the capital Harare
O’Donovan went to Africa in 2013 for the first time as part of her NYU fellowship. She was working on human rights development across African countries and returned to give this presentation in 2014 (above) where she said she had ‘more questions than answers’
Upon her return in 2014, she said during one speech: ‘I think I came back with a lot more questions than answers.’
It is not clear when she returned to Africa but Magamba said she has been working for them in Zimbabwe for around a year.
O’Donovan’s case highlights the growing concern for human rights in Zimbabwe where hundreds have been prosecuted for appearing to undermine or insult Mugabe.
‘This arrest marks the start of a sinister new chapter in the Zimbabwean government’s clampdown on freedom of speech, and the new battleground is social media,’ said Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, Muleya Mwananyanda.
The TV network that she works for tweeted on Saturday: ‘It’s not all about Martha, it’s about every Zimbabwean. This is an attempt to silence our voice. Stifle freedom .
‘Free Martha or arrest us all.’
Nearly 200 people have been criminally charged with insulting Mugabe, 93 (above with his wife Grace on October 25) in recent years, according to human rights lawyers
INSIDE HELLHOLE ZIMBABWE PRISONS WHERE MUGABE SENDS JOURNALISTS
Martha O’Donovan is not the first journalist or American citizen to be held in Zimbabwe under charges against the president.
Mugabe and the country’s police force has a long history of arresting journalists covering elections in the country or others who speak out against the government.
She was likely at Harare Central Prison, a notorious complex which is known for overcrowding and ‘decrepit’ conditions.
The Chikuribi Maximum Prison, one of two places where O’Donovan is being held
In 2008, New York Times journalist Barry Bearak described the conditions there after spending several days in a cell. He had been arrested for ‘committing journalism’ by reporting on the country’s elections without accreditation.
Afterwards, he described the ‘decrepit’ cells which were without electricity and described as some of the ‘worst’ in the country.
‘The hallways were entirely desolate and silent but for the squeaking of our shoes and intermittent drips from exposed pipes.
‘At such an ominous time, my senses felt eerily deprived, except for smell. With every step, the odor of the urine-soaked lockup grew a bit stronger,’ he said.
Others have described the dense overcrowding and harsh conditions inside.
In 2013, in an apparent show of transparency, the government invited local journalists to choose any of its prisons so that they could report on the conditions themselves.
Local news outlet The Standard visited Harare Central Prison and said they were surprised by the good conditions there.
A file image of the Harare Central Remand Prison which is notoriously overcrowded and has suffered food shortages in the past.