Area: 390,760 sq.km.
Languages: English, Shona, Ndebele
Head of state: Robert Mugabe
Freedom of the press simply does not exist in Zimbabwe. Everything is under government control, from the licensing of the media and journalists down to the content of articles. Television and radio are a state monopoly. Police and the judiciary ensure that dissenters live in terror or endure the constant battering of a relentless harassment.
Over the years, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has increasingly cut itself off from the outside world. In the run-up to general elections in March 2005, Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, the president’s right hand man, redoubled his attacks on the opposition press. Although it is arguable whether one can still talk about an opposition press when the expression of the slightest difference of opinion is seen as a coup attempt. The least criticism of the government reawakens the permanent suspicion that the West is plotting against the regime. Dissenting voices as exemplified by the Daily News, which has become mired in constant judicial battles, find themselves harassed everywhere, even in the street or on a bus.
Zimbabwe’s top circulation daily, along with its Sunday edition The Daily News of Sunday, have both been targeted by the government since the end of 2003. On 11 September of that year, after a series of clashes between the newspaper and the authorities, the Supreme Court declared The Daily News illegal because it had not registered with the Media and Information Commission (MIC) as required by the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). The management team refused to comply, challenging the constitutionality of the law before the courts. The High Court on 21 January 2004 finally allowed the newspaper to reappear after a ban of more than four months.
The following day an eight-page edition went back on sale in Harare’s news-stands but on 6 February, the Supreme Court confirmed that the information law was constitutional. Resolving to fight its legal battle before the courts to the bitter end, the Daily News decided to temporarily suspend publication and its journalists put in applications for accreditation to the MIC. These were immediately refused. On 20 September, the court acknowledged that the newspaper had not appeared illegally, contrary to government claims. The newspaper’s journalists and its management team - or those with the courage and resources to continue the fight - are now awaiting the Supreme Court ruling on the AIPPA. In the meantime, its coffers emptied by some 40 legal actions, the daily is broke. Its publishers, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), stopped paying salaries in July. Out of the original 167 Daily News staff, some 20 continue to fight alongside its editor Samuel Nkomo and his colleagues. They have had to give up the newspaper’s headquarters because they could no longer pay the rent. What was once the country’s leading newspaper is now reduced to occupying one room in the ANZ offices.
Refinements in the art of persecution
The state holds a monopoly of both television and radio. Zimbabweans who do not own a short wave radio or satellite television, both extremely expensive in a country of ever worsening poverty, have no chance to access media other than those under state control, in which pro-government propaganda and fabricated journalism are the norm. In one instance, during the last presidential elections in 2002, journalists working for publicly-owned media spread the rumour that anthrax attacks had been launched against officials of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF).
Year on year, Zimbabwe has thus become a no go area for free expression. Everything is under government control. The all-powerful MIC, set up in 2002, holds the small world of the press in its grip. It alone decides who shall get the accreditation without which journalists are denied the right to inform. Since November a two-year prison sentence awaits any journalist who works without the approval of this government-run censorship office. A new amendment, tabled by the government in November, provides for sentences from 20 years to the death penalty for a Zimbabwean or a foreigner making a false statement to a third party with the intention of incitement to public disorder, negatively effecting the Zimbabwe economy or undermining the authority of the security forces.
As in all totalitarian countries, persecution for offences of opinion can reach the height of absurdity. In one example on 10 November, an unemployed man in Harare was arrested and sentenced to eight months in prison or 140 hours of school cleaning for making remarks "undermining the authority of the president". Reason Tafirei had the bad luck to be overheard by a Zanu-PF official when he told fellow bus passengers that Mugabe was a dictator and Tony Blair a liberator. The party official immediately ordered the bus driver to head for the nearest police post where the insolent citizen was immediately arrested and imprisoned. In the same vein the authorities demanded whatever the cost that a photographer hand over the negatives of a shots he had taken while covering a Mugabe tour, even though he had used a digital camera.
The government’s nationalist and anti-Western obsession was again in evidence in the autumn with a new draft law designed to further crack down on civil society. The "Non-governmental Organisations Bill 2004" brings local and foreign NGOs under the control of a government-appointed regulatory body. The law, adopted by parliament on 9 December, forces NGOs to make a yearly declaration of their accounts, their organisational structure and their sources of funding. No political organisation, in particular those focusing on human rights issues or governance, is allowed to operate if one of its members is a foreigner or if all or part of its funding comes from abroad. The rules apply equally to democratic organisations and to those set up to fight malnutrition or Aids. Social affairs minister Paul Mangwana boasted, "This bill is the best law to be enacted by this parliament".
Behind a nationalist barricade
Foreign journalists have all left the country. Those who were not actually expelled left of their own accord, sickened by the constant obstacles thrown up to prevent them from working. Their media continue to operate as best they can with the help of local journalists who have to work in extreme secrecy. Robson Sharuko, Tendai Ndemera and Rex Mphisa, respectively head of sport and sports journalists on the government daily The Herald, were dismissed at the beginning of February for contributing to US public radio Voice of America (VOA).
Zimbabwe’s obstructive practices even caused a diplomatic incident at the end of November. Around a dozen British journalists only obtained visas to cover an England cricket tour after a 24-hour trial of strength between London and Harare. The Zimbabwean authorities initially refused to allow entry to sports journalists from the BBC, The Times, The Sunday Times, The News of the World, The Sun and the Daily Mirror, coming up with a range of objections from "lack of information" to accusations of "systematic hostility".
Robert Mugabe and his government appear to think Zimbabwe’s signature is worth little on the international scene. A member of the African Union (AU), Harare publicly undertook in July 2004 to reform its electoral law after ratifying the protocol on principles and rules governing democratic elections drawn up by the South African Development Community (SADC). Only two months later, Zimbabwe’s information minister announced his decision to ban access to public media for the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). This was a flagrant violation of Article 2.1.5 of the protocol that guarantees equal opportunity of access for all political parties to the public media. Protests from SADC member states had very little chance of working. In any event none were made.
7 journalists were convicted by a court
16 journalists were arrested
4 journalists were physically attacked
4 journalists were threatened
4 journalists were unfairly dismissed
3 journalists were expelled
1 media premises was searched
and 2 media were censored
"A news giant reduced to a shadow"
Guthrie Munyuki worked for The Daily News, a newspaper that Robert Mugabe’s government forced into closure. He talks about the endless struggles and dashed hopes of a team of journalists proud of their independence.
The day I joined the editorial team of the Daily News, I knew that my life was going to change. And the change was radical in the best sense of the word. I joined the team of the big independent daily on 1st August 2001, as a journalist specialised in the arts and human-interest stories. I came from a weekly that had been launched in December 1997, but which had lost all credibility because of the political pressure that influenced its content. But on the Daily News there were no taboo subjects. There was only room in the paper’s young team for journalists genuinely devoted to the service of Zimbabwe’s millions and who produced complete and balanced reports. The daily’s success was both the fruit of hard work in a hostile environment and its own reward in a solid team spirit.
Despite the intimidation it suffered - physical assaults and arrests of its journalists and bomb attacks on its offices - The Daily News continued to appear without any change in line. The editor, Geoffrey Nyarota, survived two murder attempts, including a bomb attack on his Harare office on 22 April 2000. Months later, he actually met the bomber, Bernard Masara, who told him that he had been sent by State Security agents. We were stunned by this revelation.
We had made ourselves the ambassadors of truth and we believed that failure was not an option. But after the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) was passed in 2002, the government managed to silence us. After starting a legal battle with the state, The Daily News had to close. On the evening of Friday, 12 September 2003, police came to shut the offices and ordered all the staff to leave the building. In those moments, three years of work, three years of hopes and effort, were swept away. I cried when I saw the police take away our computers. Admittedly, I had already had trouble with the police, on 16 June 2002, when uniformed officers broke my arm. But the pain I felt that day was different: I saw all the years of hard work blown away just by the determination of my country’s government.
The newspaper’s staff has fought appeal after appeal through the courts for more than a year in a bid to resurrect The Daily News. Once a giant of independent news it has been reduced to a shadow. It is now no more than a forgotten name and even our readers seem to have abandoned us. We have become irrelevant. Some journalists were lucky enough to leave the country to further their education or pursue careers elsewhere. But most of the newspaper’s staff were dismissed or laid off. It is very painful. Most of us have been forced to take jobs with semi-official newspapers, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
By November 2004, there were only eight journalists, two technicians, the management and the secretaries left at the Daily News. They were evicted from their former offices for non-payment of rent. All the provincial offices have been closed. As for me, I don’t have a job. It’s very hard to leave The Daily News behind me and get myself hired by another newspaper. It is very difficult to have a decent life without stable employment but I am ready to put up with it because I am convinced that this nightmare will come to an end one day. All I am waiting for now is the Supreme Court decision on whether the Daily News will live again or is finally buried.